An earlier version of this article incorrectly described a Senate vote on sugar subsidies. Menendez voted with a majority of senators to revamp the Agriculture Department program and end some parts of it, not to end the subsidies entirely. This version has been corrected.
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’ sunlit 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 reelection last year and then 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 of 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 a 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 come up dry, producing no corroborative evidence, say four people briefed on the probe. They, among others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an open investigation and private discussions.
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 that he was not involved. The Fanjul brothers declined to comment for this article, and their attorney 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 a Florida businessman with interests in the Dominican Republic.
Investigators have also recently sought to trace the cyber-trail of an anonymous tipster who first made the prostitution claims in spring 2012 to a government watchdog.
Agents have asked Dominican police to share their work tracking the tipster to a Santo Domingo cybercafe, two people familiar with the case said. From a video surveillance camera, Dominican police in early March obtained an image of a man leaving the cybercafe at the same time that the tipster e-mailed a CNN journalist from there in mid-January. A copy of the image, reviewed by The Washington Post, shows a man in his 30s or 40s, wearing a linen button-down shirt and khaki pants.
Meanwhile, Menendez continues to face a federal grand jury investigation into whether he improperly used his public office to help Melgen’s business interests while taking gifts, people familiar with the probe said.
Menendez has sought to apply pressure on the Dominican government to honor a contract with Melgen’s port-security company, documents and interviews show. Also, Menendez’s office has acknowledged that he interceded with federal health-care officials after they cited Melgen for overbilling the U.S. government for care at his South Florida clinic.
A spokesman for the FBI’s Miami field office declined to comment.
Menendez and Melgen have repeatedly said they engaged in no wrongdoing. They have called the allegations involving prostitutes a baseless and nefarious attack designed to hurt the senator’s reelection effort and undermine his clout.
“Whoever organized and carried out the false smear campaign against Senator Menendez appears to have broken the law, and as we have said from the beginning, we believe this matter should be investigated fully,” said Menendez spokeswoman Tricia Enright.
The FBI began examining the allegations against Menendez after a Washington watchdog passed them along to the Justice Department. An agent in the FBI’s Miami field office who specializes in sex trafficking began corresponding with a tipster who gave his name as “Pete Williams” in late summer 2012. But the FBI could not get the tipster to meet with investigators, according to copies of the agent’s correspondence.