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FBI probe of senator eyes smear possibility

| Thursday, May 16, 2013, 9:15 p.m.
Democrat Robert Menendez has represented New Jersey in Congress since 1993.

WASHINGTON — A pair of FBI agents met on a recent weekday morning with brothers Alfonso “Alfy” and Jose “Pepe” Fanjul in the Palm Beach headquarters of their sugar and real estate empire.

The investigators' questions struck a discordant note in the Fanjuls' sun-filled offices overlooking a yacht-filled waterway, according to three people familiar with the meeting: Were the brothers or any of their associates familiar with a plot to bring down a United States senator?

Months after the FBI began probing allegations against Sen. Robert Menendez , D-N.J., investigators are looking at whether someone set out to smear him while he was running for re-election last year and ascending to his new post as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to four people briefed on the inquiry.

The scene of federal agents interviewing two of the world's wealthiest sugar barons, whose business holdings include Domino Sugar, underscores the unusual twists of the saga centered on Menendez, who has been battling allegations that he did special favors for a major campaign donor.

As part of a wider public corruption investigation into the senator, the FBI has been examining whether Menendez patronized prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, according to people familiar with the inquiry. They said agents have been trying to determine whether the senator's longtime political supporter and friend, eye doctor Salomon Melgen, provided the women, free flights on his private plane and any other services as illegal gifts.

But the inquiry into the prostitution allegations has so far come up dry, producing no evidence to back them up, say four people briefed on the probe. They, among others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an open investigation and private discussions.

So far, the original source of the allegations is a mystery. It is a whodunit that has so roiled politics that Alfy Fanjul, for instance, has called Menendez to assure the senator he was not involved. The Fanjul brothers declined to comment for this article, and their lawyer said they respect Menendez and had nothing to do with the allegations.

The broadening inquiry is drawing in a cast of characters whose travels have intersected with Melgen and Menendez in South Florida and the Dominican Republic.

In addition to interviewing the Fanjul brothers late last month, the FBI has asked to interview a former CIA operative who is now a Florida businessman with interests in the Dominican Republic.

Investigators recently sought to trace the cybertrail of an anonymous tipster who first made the prostitution claims in spring 2012 to a government watchdog group.

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