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Pro-Menendez Hispanic media outlet suddenly, strangely goes quiet amid scandal

Ties to senator put in question

- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2013

The news organization Voxxi prides itself as an independent source of journalism for Hispanics across the United States unafraid to tackle issues ignored by the mainstream media, but there is one big story the online media outlet has all but steered clear of in recent days.

Dr. Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who founded Voxxi, had his offices raided by the FBI last week, which drew renewed attention to reports from a conservative website just before the November election that he had supplied his friend, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, with free airfare to the Dominican Republic and hired prostitutes for him while there — an accusation Mr. Menendez has angrily denied.

But while Voxxi has written dozens of articles mentioning and usually praising Mr. Menendez since its launch last year — including one headlined, "Senator Bob Menendez, a fighter for the middle class" — days passed before the news outlet acknowledged the FBI raid or the senator's political ties to the eye-doctor donor.

Even then, the coverage came in the form of an editorial that referred to a "fierce campaign" under way against Dr. Melgen, whose attorney said last week he didn't know why government agents had raided the doctor's office.

"The campaign involves a complex network of anonymous accusations of prostitution connection, possible Medicare fraud and political ramifications in Washington," the editorial declared.

Keynote speaker

When Voxxi launched last year, Mr. Menendez served as a keynote speaker for the gala held at the Newseum in Washington, which Dr. Melgen also attended. The company's press release announcing the launch included a quote from Mr. Menendez congratulating the company.

Mr. Menendez has long been able to count Dr. Melgen as a reliable source of campaign cash. Despite an $11 million tax lien and millions of dollars in investment losses, Dr. Melgen and his family members have doled out more than $426,000 in campaign donations since 1992, with a large portion going to Mr. Menendez or organizations with which the senator has been affiliated, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Dr. Melgen and family gave more than $30,000 to Mr. Menendez's campaign and nearly twice as much to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which Mr. Menendez led from 2009 to 2011.

A spokeswoman for Voxxi, Julissa Bonfante, said in an email exchange that the news organization takes pride in "objective quality journalism that educates, engages and entertains Hispanic America."

She said Voxxi did not cover the accusations involving Dr. Melgen supplying Mr. Menendez with prostitutes because that story, first reported by The Daily Caller website in November, came from anonymous sources.

Concerning the FBI's raid of Dr. Melgen's office, which has been widely reported and could be related to many subjects, Ms. Bonfante wrote in an email Friday that Voxxi was waiting for a formal announcement from the FBI and that the news organization was continuing to follow developments closely.

The FBI doesn't typically confirm or deny active investigations.

"During the election year, VOXXI highlighted and covered all prominent Latino leaders, including Sen. Menendez, Sen. [Marco] Rubio, Ted Cruz, and [New Mexico] Governor Susana Martinez, among others," she wrote.

"We continue to have a robust political section that covers the news from both sides of the spectrum, which you can see from our current stories."

On its website, Voxxi describes itself as an "independent voice for Hispanic America" that aims to "fill a void in the mainstream media." According to Alexa.com, which tracks website traffic, Voxxi has more than 300,000 unique visitors per month and more than 14,000 page views daily.

'Fell through the cracks'

After the raid, Mr. Menendez's office released a statement that called Dr. Melgen a friend and disclosed for the first time that Mr. Menendez had reimbursed the doctor for the cost of air travel.

Asked why Voxxi had not covered Mr. Menendez's statement, Ms. Bonfante cited what she called an "editorial decision led by [the] editor-in-chief, Emilio C. Sanchez." She said Mr. Sanchez manages the company and heads the editorial department, while Dr. Melgen co-founded Voxxi as a "philanthropic initiative."

Over the weekend, Mr. Sanchez and Voxxi broke the silence, with Mr. Sanchez writing an editorial about a "fierce campaign" against "the dignity, the business and the political relationships of Dr. Salomon Melgen."

The piece, which referred to Dr. Melgen as Voxxi's co-founder, said the doctor was waiting to learn the official reason for the FBI raid, but that agents who visited his West Palm Beach office left with boxes of medical records.

Quoting a lawyer from the Dominican Republic, Mr. Sanchez also said associates of the doctor believe that "behind the negative campaign are the groups that control the flow of merchandises and drugs in the Dominican Republic."

Among Dr. Melgen's businesses ventures is a security company called ICSSI, which is tied up in a controversy over a contract deal to inspect seaports in the Dominican Republic.

The New York Times reported last week that Mr. Menendez had talked to State Department officials about the potentially lucrative contract. The outlet also quoted a spokesman for the senator as saying that Mr. Menendez had a history of fighting for U.S. companies that aren't being treated fairly or have issues pending in foreign companies.

While the questions about the port deal surfaced last week, accusations that Mr. Menendez had sex with prostitutes, including one younger than 18, have lingered since November.

Mr. Menendez hasn't discussed the accusations with reporters beyond a statement issued by his office calling Dr. Melgen a friend but denying involvement with prostitutes.

In an interview with CNN on Monday, the lawmaker said he waited about two years to pay back Dr. Melgen for the cost of flights he never reported because things "fell through the cracks," partly blaming a busy travel schedule from his days helming the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Prostitution is legal in the Dominican Republic and thus the country is a frequent destination for first-world sex tourists. On Monday, The Miami Herald reported from the nation's capital of Santo Domingo that many of the ancillary details in The Daily Caller's report checked out, but that it could not confirm the charges against Mr. Menendez or find the women in question.

Separately, a Dominican woman whom Univision said had been identified by The Daily Caller as one of the prostitutes told the Spanish-language network Monday that she had never met Mr. Menendez. But it was not clear whether the woman with whom Univision spoke was the same woman.

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