Republican Bob Hugin is going nuclear against incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez in the final days of the closer-than-expected New Jersey Senate race, reviving salacious allegations that the senator had sex with underage prostitutes during past trips to the Dominican Republic.
Sen. Bob Menendez is running neck-and-neck with a Republican opponent, a far cry from his past campaigns, where hes sailed to victory over his opponents. Part of the problem may be that Menendez narrowly escaped a federal corruption conviction stemming from his relationship with a high-dollar donor in Miami. Menedez was accused of trading favors — mostly of the immigration variety — with his donor in exchange for lavish trips.
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Menendez has long denied the allegations as a smear since they first surfaced on a news site in 2012.
But Hugin, a wealthy pharmaceutical executive, is now running an explosive new television ad that cites papers filed in federal court by prosecutors in 2015 acknowledging the FBI probed the prostitution allegations as part of its corruption case against Menendez.
“It’s right here in this shocking FBI affidavit,” the ad’s narrator says. “President Obama’s Justice Department had evidence that for several years, Senator Menendez had been traveling to the Dominican Republic to engage in sexual activity with prostitutes – some of whom were minors.”
Prosecutors declined to bring charges related to the prostitution claims, though they did pursue a bribery case against him. A mistrial was declared last year after the jury failed to reach a verdict in that case.
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In 2015 court papers, prosecutors said the FBI investigated Menendez and donor Salomon Melgen after being presented “with specific, corroborated allegations” they had sex with underage prostitutes, though they decided against bringing any charges on those claims. (Melgen was later convicted in a separate Medicare fraud case, and sentenced to 17 years in prison.)
Clinton hosted a fundraiser for Menendez at the Liberty Prime Steakhouse in Jersey City with a group of “Women for Menendez” supporters. Tickets cost as much as $5,400 for the event.
“Presented with specific, corroborated allegations that defendants Menendez and Melgen had sex with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, the Government responsibly and dutifully investigated those serious allegations,” the papers stated, in response to claims from the defendants that the allegations were "false" and tainted the case.
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The prosecutors also wrote: “Confronted with corroborating evidence of such serious crimes, it would have been an inexcusable abdication of responsibility not to investigate these allegations.”
LIVE LOOK at @HillaryClinton trying to save @SenatorMenendez. (Spoiler alert: she crashes.) #NJSen pic.twitter.com/7poUpIYxl6
A Menendez campaign spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment from Fox News. But campaign spokesman Steve Sandberg called the ad a “disgraceful act” in a statement to the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.
"It is clear that Bob Hugin will say, do and spend whatever he wants to try to deceive New Jersey voters and buy a Senate seat," Sandberg said. "This is a disgraceful act by a desperate man. They are lies and he knows it."
The Hugin ad’s narrator also takes a swing at Menendez over claims made at the time by Menendez’s lawyers, as documented in the 2015 court filing, who argued “such easily disprovable” allegations of cavorting with underage prostitutes “would hardly be a federal crime even had it been true.”
“As an initial matter, it is most certainly a federal crime to leave the country for the purpose of engaging in a commercial sex act with a minor, and the defendants’ suggestion to the contrary is unsettling,” prosecutors wrote in response.
New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate in 46 years. But Hugin has been spending millions on negative ads reminding voters of Menendez’s past ethics troubles.
For the New Jersey senator, the race represents the latest in a series of dramatic fights for his political life.
Had he been convicted last November, Menendez could have faced expulsion from the Senate. Having survived the trial, Menendez famously suggested he was out for vengeance.
"To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” the Democratic senator said last year.
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WASHINGTON — This is why Republican Senate candidate Bob Hugin has been able to blanket the airwaves with ads attacking U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, making their race much closer than expected.
New Jersey Republican Senate candidate Bob Hugin releases brutal campaign ad slamming Democratic Senator Bob Menendez over allegations that he had sex with underage prostitutes. pic.twitter.com/k2HfDdd1NX
Hugin, a former Celgene Corp. executive, has pumped $24 million of his own money into the race, and his campaign has now outspent Menendez by almost 3 to 1, according to new Federal Election Commission filings.
Through Sept. 30, Hugin spent $22.7 million to $7.6 million for Democrat Menendez. He outspent Menendez, $14.1 million to $2.9 million, just in the last three months.
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That money funded $9.3 million on media from July to September, compared with $1.8 million for Menendez.
National Democrats rushed to make up the difference, especially with most polls showing Menendezs lead within the margin of error.
The Senate Democrats super political action committee, Senate Majority PAC, announced Tuesday it would spent $3 million on an ad in the New York City and Philadelphia markets connecting Hugin to President Donald Trump, whose campaign he financially supported.
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Menendez raised more money than Hugin, $11.1 million versus $6.2 million, and had more money in the bank, $5.6 million to $3.5 million, but the challengers personal checkbook has wiped out any financial advantage for the incumbent.
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The senators recent donors included $2,500 from Major League Baseball and $2,500 from the Joint Action Committee, a pro-Israel political action committee.
Englewood Cliffs-based NORPAC, the second-largest pro-Israel PAC by contributions to candidates, raised $14,901 for his campaign. Menendez, a strong supporter of Israel, is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Hugins outside donors included $47,400 from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and $2,700 from state Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union.
Proof that @HillaryClinton doesn't trust the polls anymore… #NJSen pic.twitter.com/YH7Z66Kvku
The Senate campaign figures were released late Monday, the same day that former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Jersey City to raise money for Menendez.
The pro-Hugin super PAC founded by former aides to Gov. Chris Christie, Integrity NJ, reported raising $2.4 million during the last three months, bringing its total to $4.5 million. The group spent $3.4 million on ads in support of Hugin.
The group received two $1 million contributions, from Mary Moriarty, a Chatham retiree, and Marlynn Scully, wife of major Celgene stockholder Bill Scully, who had donated $1 million earlier.
Menendez received outside help from Patients for Affordable Drugs Action, which spent $2.1 million on the race. Funding for the super PAC comes hedge fund executive John Arnold and his wife Laura, whose family foundation conducts research and offers proposals on several issues, including drug prices.
Another pro-Menendez super PAC, Leadership Alliance NJ, spent $1.2 million on behalf of the incumbent. It received $150,000 from the Committee to Build the Economy, a union-funded super PAC that supported Phil Murphys successful gubernatorial campaign last year.
The Senate Majority PAC that will air the ads linking Hugin and Trump figured prominently in the indictment of Menendez on criminal corruption charges. Menendezs friend and campaign donor, Salomon Melgen, contributed $700,000 to the PAC, which in turn spent $580,500 on his 2012 re-election campaign.
Prosecutors alleged that the donation was a bribe in return for Menendez intervening with federal agencies on Melgens behalf, but the judge in the trial acquitted the senator of that charge.
Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JDSalant or on Facebook. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.