SANTO DOMINGO -- Dr. Salomon Melgen arrives at galas here in a blue Mercedes-Benz, his four bodyguards in tow.
He rarely goes unnoticed. The stout 58-year-old ophthalmologist is a regular on the society pages, where he is almost always pictured with important politicians. Late last year he made national headlines for performing free eye surgery on a 28-year-old woman who had been shot in the face.
“He’s a national treasure,” said Eduardo Gamarra, an international relations professor at Florida International University who has polled extensively in the Dominican Republic. “He has the reputation of a miracle worker.”
But Melgen’s carefully crafted public image began to unravel this week, when federal investigators raided his West Palm Beach eye clinic as part of a probe into potential Medicare fraud. Separately, The Miami Herald confirmed the existence of a federal corruption investigation involving his ties to U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
Family members in the Dominican Republic defended the doctor on Friday, characterizing the allegations as an orchestrated effort by his political opponents to destroy his reputation.
“Everybody in this country loves him,” said his cousin, Vinicio Castillo Semán, a member of a powerful family in the Dominican Republic. “He lives his life helping people, returning their sight to them, as he did for Jose Jose,” a famous Mexican performer.
Among eye patients he has treated: former Dominican presidents Joaquín Balaguer and Juan Bosch.
Few others here would speak openly about Melgen. But published reports and public records paint Melgen as a man with business and political savvy — and a thirst for celebrity and influence.
Melgen has not returned calls to his cellphone, homes or offices. His family says he has stayed under the radar since allegations surfaced that he brought Menendez on free trips to the Dominican Republic, some of which were alleged to have involved underage prostitutes.
Menendez issued a statement this week saying he had gone on three trips to the Dominican Republic with Melgen, a friend and campaign contributor, but denied all allegations involving the prostitutes. The senator later cut a check for more than $58,000 to cover the costs of two of the flights.
Some of Melgen’s influence stems from his business interests. In addition to a successful ophthalmology practice in the United States, he has two real estate companies registered under his name in the Dominican Republic, government records show. He also holds at least 50 percent of Dominican company ICSSI, which in 2002 won a lucrative 20-year government contract to scan cargo at ports.
Both ICSSI and Melgen have come under intense public scrutiny in light of new allegations that Menendez used his influence to help revive the port contract, which had been dormant for nearly a decade. Menendez has denied wrongdoing.
Melgen also has the power of the press. In 2012, he launched his own Web publication — an English-language news site known as VOXXI. The startup, which is geared toward Hispanic audiences, drew praise from U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, among other federal lawmakers.
Family members say Melgen takes great pride in his philanthropic efforts. On his résumé and website, the doctor boasts that he has been awarded the Medal of Duarte, Sanchez and Mella — the Dominican Republic’s highest honor for charity work — and has served as the country’s alternate ambassador to the U.N.
Despite having moved to the United States in 1979, Melgen has maintained close ties to his home country. Neighbors say he spends most weekends in the Dominican Republic, either in Santo Domingo or the southeastern province of La Romana.
In the capital, Melgen’s home is in a posh apartment building in the Piantini neighborhood. Melgen owns the eighth floor. His sister-in-law owns the ninth. An employee at the building said Melgen usually comes to Santo Domingo with his wife and two children. Two different neighbors described the family as “private,” and said they rarely entertain guests at the apartment.
The entertaining takes place at Casa de Campo, an exclusive resort on the southeast coast where the most modest homes sell for millions of dollars. Melgen owns a villa there, which abuts a sweeping golf course and is partly surrounded by a privacy wall.
A Casa de Campo security guard said Melgen’s villa is often the scene of lavish parties with celebrity attendees. The guard couldn’t identify any of the regular guests, however, saying they pull up in SUVs with tinted windows and slip into the house.
It was a different scene at the home two days after federal investigators raided Melgen’s clinic in West Palm Beach. On that afternoon, the Casa de Campo villa stood empty. Black shades were drawn over the windows. There were no cars in the driveway. Neighbors declined to come to the door when a reporter rang the bell. Later, a trio of men strolling through the Casa de Campo marina said they hadn’t seen Melgen in weeks. They declined to answer any questions.
Visitors to the resort, however, seemed curious about the Dominican doctor caught up in the Menendez scandal. At La Casita, a Casa de Campo bar and restaurant, U.S. tourists pondered what could have happened at Melgen’s villa, and whether it would end the career of a U.S. senator.
Semán remained confident his cousin’s name would be cleared. “What you’ll be able to find about Salomon, is that he’s only done good here,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and special correspondent Ezra Fieser contributed to this report.