Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller website is still making a rather weak effort at this hour to defend its reporting of the now-discredited smear job on New Jersey’s Senator Robert Menendez. Over the weekend we received speculative inquiries and tips about who might have been responsible. Most of the conjecture centers around John Melvin Howting, a mysterious conservative media activist linked to James O’Keefe.

While attending Miami University of Ohio, Howting led the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute on campus and invited O’Keefe to speak on campus. Fellow students reported that Howting once applied tanning oil to his face and tried to pass as a Latino liberal activist, which is precisely the sort of “dirty trick” O’Keefe acolytes aspire to perform. It’s no great stretch to see Howting growing facial hair and perhaps applying makeup in order to alter his appearance, and one fake mole and a haircut would be enough to make him look like “Carlos.”

Howting’s name first appeared on the public radar when he attempted to pass himself off as a worker trying to organize a union while attempting to sting community organizers in Harlem. That operation was backed by an elaborate fake website, which is a common feature of O’Keefe’s shenanigans. Shortly after the Harlem episode became public, O’Keefe’s voter ID “sting” video hit the internet. In it, a man tries to obtain the ballot of Attorney General Eric Holder while wearing a hidden camera. Howting was later identified as the individual behind the camera, although to date no 100% positive match has been made.

So is Howting also “Carlos”? It is difficult to tell from the available photographs. Is O’Keefe behind the Menendez sting? That is far from a sure thing, but many elements of the Menendez smear are familiar to O’Keefe watchers. For example, in both cases someone has tried to “sex up” what was already a legitimate story. In 2009, ACORN was trying to get out from under an ethical cloud; in 2012, the senator was dealing with charges of improper donor influence. Neither story required a prostitute to make it worse.

And then there’s the expense incurred by arranging the sting:

“I think it’s a pretty elaborate plot to take down a sitting Senator,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “I have no idea who would be behind this and who would go to such great lengths… who would fund this because it wasn’t cheap.”

Add up travel to and from the Dominican Republic, payoffs, and so on, and the cost of the operation was at least thousands of dollars. O’Keefe enjoys easy funding from the deep pockets of billionaire Foster Friess, who underwrote his failed 2010 voter fraud “investigation” of the SEIU. Friess is a constant contributor to right wing causes, including Islamophobic propaganda shops. He is also the angel investor behind Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller, which has always reported favorably on O’Keefe’s stings.

Such funding also hints at careful planning and at least some sense of professionalism in the operatives who ran the smear. To be sure, James O’Keefe is hardly the only right wing smear-merchant out there, although he is definitely the best-known and probably the best-funded. Tucker Carlson has denied paying anyone for the story, but if the operation was properly funded then financial gain was hardly the objective of its authors.

Whoever they are, the persons behind the operation tried to sell their story to several media outlets and at least one watchdog organization. Of those, The Daily Caller was simply the only one credulous enough to believe it. ABC, which declined to report the story in 2012, reported last week that unidentified “GOP operatives” told them last year about Menendez taking part in raunchy pool parties, then arranged interviews with the prostitutes and introduced them to “Carlos:”

When asked about “Carlos” during the interviews, one of the women said, “He says he works for a newspaper or something like that.”

At the time, “Carlos” was described to ABC News by the lawyer (Melanio) Figueroa, as an associate who was in charge of organizing the interviews via a Skype hook-up. There was no mention made of any connection between “Carlos” and The Daily Caller.

The Skype address used by ABC News to make contact in the Dominican Republic included the names Carlos and Martinez. A message sent by ABC News Thursday to the same Skype address seeking comment has not been returned.

It is unlikely that the Skype address for “Carlos” will ever be used again. Websites used in O’Keefe’s stings have usually disappeared afterwards, too.

Howting has also been named as a suspect in the abortive 2011 sting attempt on Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert. If he was responsible for that incident, then Howting can plausibly be considered a “GOP operative” since he was working for Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI) at the time.

Breitbart Unmasked will continue to research this story.