Hugin adopts Trumpian sleaze with fake news about Menendez and hookers | Editorial

Posted Oct 17, 2018

Bob Hugin has released a TV ad which repeats six-year-old allegations that Sen. Bob Menendez had a predilection for underage prostitutes, an assertion that is based almost entirely on a single anonymous source cited in an affidavit from an FBI special agent before the senator's 2016 corruption trial. 

Even the FBI doesn't know the identity of the anonymous source, and prosecutors never felt confident enough in its reliability to include this in their indictment of Menendez. But Hugin is relying on this charge to close the gap in the polls three weeks before Election Day.

So it's time to look at the core claims. The FBI agent, Gregory Sheehy, gave 23 pages of testimony that mostly recited information from an anonymous informant who called himself "Pete Williams."

Among other things, Williams claimed knowledge of prostitutes who could provide information of Menendez's sexual trysts; he claimed he had possession of a letter from a woman who was 16 when she had sex with Menendez in 2009; and he provided dates in which parties with hookers took place at the Dominican home of ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, the central figure in Menendez's corruption trial, who was later convicted of Medicaid fraud.

The FBI couldn't find convincing evidence of any of that, Sheehy testified. The agency did not even interview Williams, who refused to meet with the FBI, and who "has not disclosed enough information for the FBI to identify any minors." 

Sheehy, did, however, interview two Melgen girlfriends identified "Y.F." and "Svitlana Buchyk," both models. Both confirmed that Menendez had been to Melgen's home in Casa de Campo. Both denied being prostitutes. And both "never saw Melgen or Menendez in company of either prostitutes or underage females," Sheehy swore.

Those women, who we actually know exist, didn't make the Hugin ad.

Instead, he filled 60 seconds with allegations delivered by a pseudonymous source and called it "shocking."

The ad also shows Menendez expressing support of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford on the Senate floor as an ominous female voice asks, "What about the underage girls who accused you" of sexual misconduct. 

No underage girls ever made any such accusation. In fact, the underage girls may have been invented in the mind of Pete Williams, judging by the Sheehy affidavit.

The first attempt Williams made to smear Menendez was through the Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility, the watchdog group known as CREW. Its former executive director, Melanie Sloan, passed it along to the FBI after CREW concluded that Williams had no credibility.

"All of these allegations were discredited," Sloan, a former federal prosecutor, told Jonathan Salant of NJ Advance Media Monday. "It is pretty despicable of Menendez's opponent to bring up stuff that is completely untrue. There's stuff about Menendez that's problematic, but this isn't it."

That about covers it. 

This is a long-debunked smear that cannot stand up to even passing scrutiny, and Team Hugin is asking the rest of us to swim in same sewer occupied by the fake-news echo chamber. 

The Hugin campaign insists that it is not directly accusing Menendez of sex crimes, even though the ad's Trumpian claim is that the FBI had evidence that he had engaged with underaged prostitutes. Proof is optional, interpretation is invited.

"We (only) said had the FBI had allegations - that's a factual statement," campaign attorney Mark Sheridan said. "The fact that they decided not to press charges is not dispositive. But that doesn't mean the allegations aren't true."

That doesn't mean they are an adequate foundation for a political ad, either. Hugin may think he has revived a long-buried story with legal obfuscation, but he's just dishing out weapons-grade sleaze.

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