Eric Lipton made the front page of Sunday's New York Times with a strange sort of rebuttal to the paper's investigation into influence-peddling scandals (among other things) surrounding Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez. "Inquiry on Menendez’s Influence Was Powered by Partisan Players." While reluctantly admitting the seriousness of the charges involving Menendez's relationship with Florida donor Dr. Salamon Melgen, Lipton suggested the partisan, shadowy origin of the charges weighed against them. The caption to a photo of a lonesome Menendez set the tone: "Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey said a partisan conspiracy focused the news media on him before his re-election." Would a conservative politician enveloped in scandal be covered from such a sympathy-inducing angle?
Ironically, it was the paper's front-page coverage earlier this month that really brought the scandal into the public light. Does that make the Times part of the "partisan conspiracy" of Republicans as well?
Sandwiched between two doctors’ offices at a roadside plaza here is the headquarters of a small team of veteran Republican investigators, operating almost as a private detective squad, who since late last year have had a determined goal: bringing down Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey.
“We’ve never sent a Democrat to jail,” said Ken Boehm, the chairman of the group, the National Legal and Policy Center, as he looked up from a table filled with his Menendez files and engaged in what was to him a bit of wishful thinking.
(Boehm's group takes strong issue with what they call Lipton's selective quoting here. More on that later.)
To Mr. Menendez and his staff, the work going on at this suburban Washington office suite, paid for by donations from prominent Republicans nationwide, is proof that the news media frenzy focusing on his actions to help a Florida eye doctor is at least in part a political smear.
But the results have been troubling revelations. Those documented by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers involve serious accusations of favoritism by the senator
In recent weeks, Mr. Menendez has acknowledged intervening with at least four federal agencies -- including the Departments of State and Health and Human Services -- in ways that stood to benefit his friend and campaign contributor Dr. Salomon E. Melgen, who is under investigation by federal authorities for possible Medicare fraud.
But the way Mr. Menendez first came under broader scrutiny, at a minimum, illustrates the often-hidden role that partisan players have in helping push the major news media to dig into ethical allegations lodged against sitting members of Congress.
The inquiry began with an incendiary tip -- unproven and vehemently disputed by Mr. Menendez -- that Dr. Melgen had helped procure prostitutes, some of them underage, for Mr. Menendez, after flying the senator repeatedly on his private plane to the Dominican Republic, where Dr. Melgen has a home at a seaside resort. This information was put forward by an odd array of self-interested characters, including the right-leaning Web site The Daily Caller and someone -- his identity remains a mystery -- who claimed to be an American citizen who frequented the Dominican Republic.
The background story of how the accusations were initially made has all the makings of a Hollywood political thriller, even snaring the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the process. It began in April, when an unsolicited e-mail was sent to a left-leaning group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which in a way is the liberal counterpart to Mr. Boehm’s group.
(CREW indeed tends to target conservatives with their complaints. Unlike the NLPC, however, it is not the feature of Times reporting targeting it for bringing scandals to light.)
Lipton hyped the political angle, as if it's unheard of for political scandals to be uncovered and hyped up by political enemies:
The best evidence suggesting that the original tip had a political element emerged in the fall.
With the 2012 election weeks away -- and no public action taken by Ms. Sloan’s group or by the F.B.I. -- someone brought the material to The Daily Caller, the conservative Web site. David Martosko, the site’s executive editor, would not say in an interview last week who had contacted the site. But The Daily Caller rushed to arrange video interviews with two women claiming to be prostitutes involved with Mr. Menendez and to post the story on the Internet. The timing hurt its efforts at exposure, however, as Hurricane Sandy had just hit. The Daily Caller tried to increase coverage by letting The Drudge Report break the news, which The Caller posted on Nov. 1.
Major newspapers, including The Times, did not report on the accusations related to the prostitution claims, concluding they were not sufficiently substantiated. But the nudging only continued.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman would be interested to hear that the Times holds off on unsubstantiated claims of sex scandal. At least when Democratic politicians are involved.
Lipton indirectly chided Boehm because his "targets are almost always Democrats," and concluded with quotes from left-leaning CREW (whose targets are almost always Republicans) granting its reluctant seal of approval to the investigation, as if the partisan CREW was some kind of final arbiter.
Peter Flaherty at the National Legal and Policy Center was incredulous about Lipton's claims and wrote a post contradicting him, and taking issue with how Lipton relayed a truncated quote from Boehm.
The only problem with this story line is that the New York Times approached us shortly before the January 29 FBI raid on Melgen's eye practice in Florida and asked us if we had any information on Melgen. We did not seek to place it with any news organization because there was (and is) even more to the story, and we were (and are) still researching it.
Since the Times asked for it, we provided what we had at that point, information showing Menendez was using his position as Chair of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere to push a windfall contract for his biggest political and personal benefactor. This information was the basis for the "heart" of a February 1 front-page story titled, "Senator Has Long Ties to Donor Under Scrutiny."
Now Lipton...asserts that Menendez is the victim of some kind of "partisan" cabal when it was his own newspaper that sought out the story.
Lipton was well aware of our interactions with other Times reporters because NLPC Chairman Ken Boehm discussed them with him on the phone and during the interview for his story. It appears Lipton's deliberately misrepresented our relationship with his own employer in order to fit the premise of his story.
Lipton misrepresented other elements of his interview with Ken Boehm. He opens the story with the provocative quote from Ken that "We've never sent a Democrat to jail." The quote was taken out of context in order to invert its meaning.
Ken described to Lipton how we were responsible for the highest-ranking member of the Bush administration going to prison. Her name was Darleen Druyun, the Bush Administration's Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. She pleaded guilty of a crime for her role in the Boeing Tanker Deal Scandal, which NLPC first exposed in a complaint to the Defense Department Inspector General. The Wall Street Journal ran the story on the front page leading soon thereafter to the canceling of the multi-billion-dollar deal and the Druyun guilty plea. Boehm noted to Lipton that we have sent a Republican to prison, but no Democrat, in response to Lipton's questions about the "partisanship" of NLPC.
The manipulation of the Boehm quote is a serious breach of journalistic ethics.