Sen. Robert Menendez, South Florida eye doctor indicted in federal corruption case

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a press conference on April 1, 2015 in Newark, New Jersey. Menendez has been indicted on federal corruption charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a press conference on April 1, 2015 in Newark, New Jersey. Menendez has been indicted on federal corruption charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud. Getty Images

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a powerful New Jersey Democrat charged with corruption Wednesday, did a bunch of political favors for his close South Florida friend and wealthy benefactor, eye doctor Salomon Melgen.

In a sprawling indictment filed in the 61-year-old senator’s home state, federal prosecutors say Menendez illegally peddled his political influence to help his pal with both business and personal concerns — in exchange for nearly $1 million in gifts and donations. Topping the charges:

▪ The senator tried to resolve the West Palm Beach physician’s multimillion-dollar billing dispute with the federal Medicare program.

▪ He helped Melgen launch a port security business in his native Dominican Republic.

▪ He even supported visa applications for the doctor’s girlfriends from the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Ukraine.

In exchange, the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is accused of accepting several private plane flights to a Caribbean resort, other gifts such as a luxury Paris hotel stay and a bounty of campaign donations, according to the indictment. The physician, who was also indicted, even contributed $40,000 to the politician’s legal defense fund involving a recall issue.

“Government corruption — at any level of elected office — corrodes the public trust and weakens our democratic system,” Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said in a statement.

In a defiant statement issued Wednesday evening, Menendez — the nation’s first Cuban-American senator — said he was outraged at the “false allegations.”

“I’m angry because prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption and have chosen to twist my duties as a Senator — and as a friend — into something improper,” Menendez said. “They’re dead wrong, and I’m confident they will be proven so.”

In Newark, New Jersey, the Department of Justice filed the 68-page indictment charging Menendez and Melgen with conspiracy, bribery, honest services fraud and travel violations, capping a two-year probe of his relationship with the ophthalmologist.

Separately, Melgen, 61, continues to be under investigation by a federal grand jury in West Palm Beach on allegations that his practice over-billed Medicare by millions of dollars. In 2012, Medicare paid him more than any other doctor in America.

Melgen’s defense attorneys, Anne Lyons and Maria Dominguez, declined to comment Wednesday.

Prosecutors and the FBI focused on Menendez’s efforts on behalf of his political benefactor, including personally trying to resolve the physician’s high-stakes $9 million billing dispute with the taxpayer-funded Medicare program. As the senator sought to help the doctor between 2009 and 2012, Menendez went on several trips with Melgen to the Dominican Republic on the physician’s private plane and stayed at his Casa de Campo resort villa — all without reporting the gifts, according to the indictment.

“Melgen furnished Menendez with many flights on these private jets over the course of several years, which Menendez accepted at no cost to himself,” the indictment said.

“On more than one occasion, Menendez brought a guest,” it said. “On at least one occasion, Menendez’s guest flew on the plane without Menendez in order to meet Menendez for a weekend stay at Melgen’s villa in the Dominican Republic.”

As the controversy about their relationship escalated two years ago, the senator quietly wrote a personal check for $58,000 to reimburse Melgen for the two unreported trips in 2010. His office later disclosed a third flight, from Florida to New Jersey, indicating the senator had repaid Melgen $11,250.

Also in 2010, Melgen used his American Express rewards points to pay for the senator’s weekend stay with a female friend at the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome, according to the indictment. Total value: $4,934.

Menendez sent Melgen an email in which he asked the physician to book a suite for three nights at the luxury hotel that April. “It would need to be in my name,” Menendez wrote his friend.

Menendez is the 12th sitting U.S. senator to be indicted. The last was Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican who was convicted in 2008. The Justice Department later dismissed the case, acknowledging that it had withheld key evidence, but not before Stevens lost his Senate seat in a close election.

Now that the indictment is filed, prosecutors will face the difficult challenge of proving that the two-term senator 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 container-screening contract in his native Dominican Republic last year, he 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.

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.

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.

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