WASHINGTON – Sen. Robert Menendez, dogged by a federal corruption probe, was the target of a Cuban intelligence smear plot that managed to fool the FBI and media into investigating.
That's the allegation from Menendez's lawyer, who has asked the Justice Department to investigate, a person familiar with the request confirmed to CNN.
It's a dramatic twist to an already sensational story that involved allegations that Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, traveled to have sex with underage Dominican prostitutes. Those stories, shopped to journalists around Washington for months, were published on a conservative news website before the purported prostitutes recanted and the FBI found no merit in the matter.
It also may throw a wrench into an already complicated investigation of Menendez by the FBI in New Jersey and overseen by the Justice Department's public integrity unit. Investigators are examining Menendez's relationship with a political donor whose ophthalmology practice in Florida has been scrutinized for its billing practices.
The Washington Post first reported the latest turn in the story Monday night, saying that the Menendez claim of a Cuban smear is based on a Central Intelligence Agency finding that Cuban intelligence agents were behind prostitution claims against the senator.
Menendez, who is of Cuban descent, is a staunch opponent of the Cuban communist government and, from his perch as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has pushed the Obama administration to hold the line on sanctions against the regime of Raul Castro.
Stephen Ryan, Menendez's lawyer, said he would comment Tuesday on the matter. A Menendez spokeswoman didn't respond to a request for comment. The Justice Department declined to comment.
A person familiar with the Menendez legal strategy said the letter was sent to the Justice Department seeking an investigation. If the CIA finding is true, the person said, then the ongoing probe of the senator is tainted by the fact Menendez was a victim of a foreign intelligence smear.
The episode began in April 2012 when a tipster calling himself "Peter Williams" alerted the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, that he had evidence Menendez engaged in sex tourism by traveling to meet underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.
Over a period of months, the tipster managed to also get the interest of an ABC News producer and the FBI, which began looking into the matter.
Eventually, after months of effort by an FBI agent in Miami, the tipster wouldn't provide additional information or talk to the agent about the Menendez allegations, according to records of the email exchanges that were later forwarded to several other journalists in Washington. The sordid tale did become public in November 2012, when the Daily Caller website published the prostitution allegations.
Still, the FBI's foray into Menendez's personal life dovetailed with an ongoing probe focused on a Menendez donor who for years has fought allegations he overbilled Medicare. People familiar with the investigation say it continues, with the FBI and prosecutors still examining whether Menendez broke any laws in his ties to political donors.