Stringing up crime scene tape and using a locksmith, the FBI on Tuesday and Wednesday raided the West Palm Beach business of an eye doctor suspected of providing free trips and even underage Dominican Republic prostitutes to U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez — who has denied what he calls the “fallacious allegations.”
Agents hauled away boxes and bags of evidence from the medical-office complex of Dr. Salomon Melgen, a contributor to Menendez and other prominent politicians, to start hauling away potential evidence in several vans.
On Wednesday, the FBI agents were joined by an inspector from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, indicating the search-and-seizure raid has ties to a possible Medicare fraud inquiry. Melgen has also been the subject of a parallel federal investigation into his relationship with Menendez, D-N.J., who was first accused of improprieties in the conservative Daily Caller website.
“Dr. Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of Senator Menendez for many years,” Mendendez’s office said. “Senator Menendez has traveled on Dr. Melgen’s plane on three occasions, all of which have been paid for and reported appropriately. Any allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically-motivated right-wing blog and are false.”
Melgen couldn’t be reached on his home, office or cell phones.
Melgen has been involved in a variety of lawsuits, as a plaintiff and defendant in Palm Beach County. One of his civil attorneys, Jack Scarola, said Melgen is “a man of great honesty, veracity’’ who follows the law.
Scarola represents Melgen in a years-long suit in which he lost $10 million as the victim of a Ponzi scheme.
Melgen has also had numerous tax issues.
Melgen has an outstanding IRS lien of $11.1 million for taxes owed from 2006 to 2009, according to records filed with the Palm Beach County recorder’s office. A previous IRS lien for $6.2 million was satisfied in 2011, records show. Another lien, of $1.3 million, was satisfied in December 2002, four months after it was placed.
Amid those tax issues, Melgen and his family have contributed at least $357,000 to candidates and committees since 1998, according to Florida and federal campaign records. Of that, the Melgens have contributed about 9 percent to Menendez’s federal campaigns.
Melgen also owns a private CL-600 Challenger plane through one of his West Palm Beach-based companies, records show, and frequently flies between South Florida and Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, where he is from.
Menendez has flown on the plane at least once, when he was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2009 to 2011, when the Melgens contributed about $60,400 to the group.
Melgen was first linked to Menendez just before the November elections, when the Daily Caller website interviewed two alleged prostitutes who said they had relations with the New Jersey Democrat at Melgen’s Dominican Republic mansion in Casa de Campo.
After the election, the news died down.
But then, days before Menendez was about to start leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as chairman, reporters started receiving a 58-page dossier of emails between a Miami FBI agent and a tipster who claimed that some of the prostitutes had been underage.
“I’m not going to respond to the fallacious allegations of your story,” Menendez told the Daily Caller on Monday when a reporter caught up with him on a train in Washington.
At the time, Menendez had just stepped into the national spotlight along with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and six other senators who are hammering out a highly watched immigration plan that is the talk of Washington.
Rubio is one of the few big-name Florida politicians who has not received campaign money from the Melgens, who have contributed to Sen. Bill Nelson and Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Joe Garcia, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, among others.
The FBI would not comment on the emails, and the agent, Regino Chavez, did not return calls or emails. But sources told The Miami Herald that the emails are real.
The emails from agent Chavez show that he tried to find out what happened. But the tipster, who went by the name “Peter Williams,” refused to talk to him by telephone or meet him face to face.
Chavez contacted the tipster Aug.1, 2012, after the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington referred the case to the FBI. The tipster would not meet or speak by phone to CREW or to an investigative reporter, either.
“As far as the information you have provided, we have been able to confirm most of it,” Chavez wrote on Sept. 12. “We know that you are providing accurate information.”
But it is not clear what that specific information is because Chavez was unable to interview the alleged prostitutes. Over the months, Chavez tried to meet or speak with the tipster, but had no luck.
Then, on Nov. 1, the agent wrote the tipster again and drew attention to the Daily Caller interview with the alleged prostitutes.
“I think we are at the point where you and I need to communicate over the phone so that we can move faster,” he wrote.
Amid the suspicious circumstances of the complaints, Democrats have tried to characterize the reports about Menendez and Melgen as a right-wing smear job.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid refused to comment on the possibility of an FBI investigation when he was asked Tuesday about the case.
Said Reid: “Always consider the source. All anyone here has to look at is the source where this comes from.”
But the two-day raid of Menendez’s longtime friend shows that an investigation is ongoing.
Just after 2:15 p.m. Wednesday FBI and HHS agents began hauling cardboard boxes out of Melgen’s West Palm Beach 45th Street eye-care center and loading them into a white utility van in front of the office. They were continuing the search that started Tuesday night.
Michael Leverock, spokesman for the FBI’s Miami office would not comment on what was being taken out of Vitreo-Retinal Consultants Eye Center or why the FBI was there.
“We are conducting law enforcement action at this location,” said Leverock.
The FBI also searched the eye doctor’s other clinics, in Delray Beach and Port St. Lucie.
At the scene in West Palm Beach, agents, some from the Office of the Inspector General of the federal Health and Human Services department, formed a single-file line each holding at least one box and rotated back in to get more.
As soon as the boxes were loaded, the glass double doors of the eye care center, which were propped open with red poinsettias, were closed. The van remained in front of the eye care center.
Earlier in the day, an agent went to his car to retrieve what looked like a crow bar. Some time later a locksmith from Pop-A-Lock showed up and was escorted in by an agent.
The locksmith came out once to get a drill.
One patient, Anthony Jordan, showed up for fis 2:30 pm appointment and was surprised to find crime scene tape at the clinic site.
“I wasn’t sure if they called and cancelled,” he said. “Guess I am not having my appointment.”
Miami Herald staff writer Luisa Yanez contributed to this report.