By most appearances, Dr. Salomon Melgen embodies the great American immigrant success story: A native of the Dominican Republic, Melgen has earned renown as one of South Florida’s leading eye surgeons. He owns a sprawling, waterfront home in North Palm Beach valued at about $3 million. He gives generously to charities and rubs elbows with prominent politicians.
“He’s a man that loves the limelight. He always has,’’ said Patricia Goodman, 70, a former office administrator and personal assistant to Melgen, who is now at the center of two FBI probes, one involving published allegations that he provided free trips to the Dominican Republic and prostitutes for U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.
Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called the allegations a politically motivated smear by a right-leaning website.
FBI agents raided Melgen’s West Palm Beach office Tuesday night, apparently seeking records related to the second investigation, one involving possible Medicare fraud. The feds continued to search the premises on Wednesday, joined by agents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, suggesting that the raid was linked to Medicare.
Lawrence Duffy, a criminal defense attorney representing Melgen, said his client is unaware of the reason for the FBI raid.
“The government has not informed Dr. Melgen what its concerns are,’’ Duffy said in an email to The Miami Herald. “However, we are confident that Dr. Melgen has acted appropriately at all times.’’
Goodman said Melgen never hosted a fundraiser for Menendez during the time that she worked for the doctor from about 1989 to 1999. But she planned all of Melgen’s parties during those years, and said he helped raise millions for political campaigns — and had a blast doing it.
“He liked the excitement of it,’’ Goodman said on Wednesday from her home in Palm Harbor on Florida’s Gulf Coast. “He liked being with the big shots. That was his thing. He was very impressed with the politicians.’’
The politicians were equally impressed with Melgen, 58.
Among the politicians whom Melgen has befriended, and for whom he has hosted private fundraisers at his 5,000-square-foot home: former U.S. Sens. Christopher Dodd and Bob Graham, late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles — who also was a patient of Melgen’s — former President Bill Clinton, and Leonel Fernández, former president of the Dominican Republic.
Goodman noted that Bill and Hillary Clinton vacationed at the doctor’s home in Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, and that he became good friends with Terry McAuliffe, former Democratic National Committee chairman and co-chair of Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign.
“He used to go to Dr. Melgen’s home in Casa de Campo and play golf all the time,’’ Goodman said of McAuliffe.
Behind Melgen’s conspicuous success and powerful friendships, though, Goodman said, she also saw a man who behaved recklessly in his private life.
“There were things going on that I didn’t like, not necessarily in the office,’’ she said. “His personal life got to take a toll on me.’’
So much so, Goodman said, that she declined to return to work for Melgen in 1999 after she was diagnosed with cancer.
Melgen could not be reached at his home, office or on cell phones or by email Wednesday.
The senator’s office issued a statement regarding Melgen’s relationship with Menendez:
“Dr. Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of Sen. Menendez for many years,’’ the statement read.
“Sen. 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.’’
Menendez, who was first accused of improprieties in the conservative Daily Caller website in November, has denied what he calls the “fallacious allegations.’’ He has not yet directly addressed his relationship with Melgen.
Interviews with Melgen’s former employees and acquaintances paint a picture of an exceedingly generous man who struggled to adapt as an immigrant and succeeded wildly in his medical career and in various business ventures, including founding a Hispanic-themed digital media outlet, VOXXI.com, which is based in Coral Gables.
He donated $15,000 at a recent fundraiser for experimental research into a rare muscular-degenerative disease that afflicts the 2-year-old son of Art Estopinan, the chief of staff of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican of Miami.
“He is an angel. I consider him to be an angel,’’ said Estopinan, his voice breaking into sobs. “This is the only hope my son has.’’
Goodman said Melgen “has got a really big heart for people. We used to see thousands of people that had no insurance, just write it off. He did that. He would never turn anybody away if they didn’t have the money.’’
A woman who holds a high-level position at the Dominican Healthcare Association of Florida, which gave Melgen its lifetime honorary member award in April 2012, said she was surprised about the allegations.
“I was shocked,” she said, adding that she always regarded Melgen as a professional totally devoted to his work.
“I see him as a great professional of great trust whose patients hold in high regard,” the woman said.
The woman remembered that when Melgen accepted the award at a gala dinner at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables he talked about the difficulties he had adjusting to the United States as an immigrant.
No one has a specific date when Melgen immigrated to the United States, but the woman at the Dominican Healthcare Association said it was possible he arrived in the late 1970s.
Melgen graduated in 1978 from the Pedro Henríquez Ureña National University in Santo Domingo, and by 1980 was doing an internship at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut.
He found professional and financial success in South Florida, where he says he was the first physician to perform out-patient eye surgery in 1986.
But Palm Beach court records show Melgen also has faced financial problems — including multiple IRS liens for millions of dollars.
One lawsuit hints at complications in his personal life. Melgen’s company, Vitreo-Retinal Consultants, sued Yuddehiris Dorrejo in 2000 amid a business dispute that involved a close relationship with Melgen.
Online records available immediately at the Palm Beach Courthouse Wednesday did not contain the full case file, but a four-page order by Palm Beach Circuit Court Judge John Wessel dismissing the case in March 2002 summarized the details of the legal dispute.
In October 1998, Dorrejo came to Florida and met Melgen at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Palm Beach County.
“Thereafter, an intimate romantic relationship developed,” the judge wrote.
Then Dorrejo entered into an oral agreement with Vitreo-Retinal Consultants, which was owned and controlled by Melgen.
Melgen’s company had agreed to make a $700,000 loan for Dorrejo’s interest in a franchise retail store in the Dominican Republic.
Melgen acknowledged it was his idea to set up an account with Northern Trust Bank in Palm Beach County because his company had a relationship with that bank.
“Melgen claims that such a large sum of money would not be deposited by a normal person as a gift for a romantic relationship,” the judge wrote.
But Dorrejo claimed that she was not a resident of Florida and doesn’t engage in business in Florida and that “the consideration for the money deposited in Northern Trust Bank was the intimate romantic relationship between Dorrejo and Melgen,” the judge wrote.
Dorrejo told the court that she had not breached any contract and that, “The money bestowed upon her by her lover, Melgen, was without any obligation for repayment” wrote the judge, who granted Dorrejo’s motion to dismiss it.
Dorrejo, who could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, also reported that Melgen owns property in the Dominican Republic and advertises medical services there.
The doctor cuts an impressive figure in the Caribbean island nation.
In 2009, Melgen’s child was married at Santo Domingo’s historic cathedral, the oldest in the Americas, in a ceremony blessed by Dominican Catholic Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López. The wedding was covered by Dominican newspapers, which published photos of the well-heeled guests.
In May 2010, Melgen hosted a dinner honoring Menendez in which he said, “For me, Mr. Menendez is not the leader of the Hispanic-American in the United States, but a leader of Hispanics in all the Americas.’’
Miami Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Carli Teproff and Jay Weaver contributed to this report. Herald special correspondent Ezra Fieser reported from the Dominican Republic.