U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez’s longtime friendship with a wealthy Palm Beach County eye doctor may soon come back to haunt the powerful Democrat from New Jersey.
The Department of Justice plans to file corruption charges against Menendez in the coming weeks, capping a two-year probe of his relationship with ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, CNN and several major news outlets reported on Friday. And Melgen — a generous donor of trips and campaign money to Menendez — is under a separate investigation himself by a federal grand jury in West Palm Beach on allegations that his practice over-billed Medicare by millions of dollars.
Prosecutors and the FBI have been focusing on Menendez’s efforts on behalf of his political benefactor, including personally trying to resolve the physician’s high-stakes billing dispute with the taxpayer-funded Medicare program. During the period the senator sought to help the doctor, Menendez went on several trips with Melgen to the Dominican Republic on the physician’s private plane and stayed at his resort-area home in 2010 — all without reporting the gifts.
As the controversy about their relationship escalated two years ago, the senator quietly wrote a personal check to reimburse Melgen for the unreported trips, but that didn’t end several on-going federal probes.
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On Friday evening, Menendez insisted during a news conference in his home state that he has done nothing wrong.
“Let me be very clear, I have always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law,” he said. “Every action that I and my office have taken for the last 23 years that I have been privileged to be in the United States Congress has been based on pursuing the best policies for the people of New Jersey and this entire country.”
Tricia Enright, a spokeswoman for Menendez, also issued a statement earlier in the day, saying “the facts will ultimately confirm” that the senator acted solely to “appropriately address public policy issues.”
“The senator has counted Dr. Melgen as one of his closest personal friends for decades,’’ she said. “The two have spent holidays together and have gone to each other's family funerals and weddings and have exchanged personal gifts.”
If corruption charges are filed, prosecutors will face the difficult challenge of proving that a sitting senator, a Cuban-American now in his second term, accepted those gifts from Melgen in exchange for specific favors — starting with intervening on the doctor’s behalf with top Health and Human Services officials over the Medicare payments.
Melgen's billing dispute with Medicare — over costly eye injections to treat a disease that causes blindness — became one of the areas of inquiry for the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section in 2013, after federal agents raided his Palm Beach County clinics.
In 2009 and again in 2012, Menendez had complained to top Medicare officials that it was unfair to penalize the doctor because the billing rules for administering the drug, Lucentis, were ambiguous. Melgen had billed Medicare $9 million for the drug, which is used to treat “wet” macular degeneration.
When Melgen, who invested in a variety of businesses outside his medical practice, needed help with a port security contract in his native Dominican Republic last year, he also again turned to Menendez.
The senator tried to get the State Department to revive the long-stalled, multimillion-dollar agreement at the Santo Domingo port with a company of which Melgen is part-owner.
Melgen’s defense attorney, Kirk Ogrosky, could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Menendez's official actions on behalf of his longtime friend came to light after federal agents raided Melgen's clinic and two other South Florida offices in late January 2013, which sent shock waves from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey to Washington.
Published reports noted that the doctor had donated more than $700,000 in 2012 to Menendez's reelection campaign and those of other Senate Democrats.
The timing could not have been more sensitive because Menendez was poised to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February. Despite the controversy, he ascended to the post that month.
At that same time, a Miami federal grand jury was convened to consider allegations that Melgen had arranged encounters with prostitutes in his native Dominican Republic while he and Menendez stayed at the doctor's seaside estate in the resort area of Casa de Campo.
The purported prostitutes quickly recanted their original stories alleging the trysts. And the Miami grand jury found no basis to file any charges on that matter, according to law enforcement sources.
But the Justice Department’s corruption investigation continued in New Jersey, focusing on the question of whether Menendez improperly exercised political influence for his longtime friend.
That the Justice Department was pursuing charges initially came out last week when court documents were briefly unsealed by mistake. They showed a federal grand jury in New Jersey was looking into gifts that Melgen gave the senator and at Menendez’s efforts on the Medicare billing and Melgen’s port security business.
On Friday, sources in the Obama administration confirmed to CNN, the New York Times and Washington Post that charges against the senator were expected within weeks.