New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez hasn’t said much about the various allegations surrounding his relationship with donor/shady doctor friend Salomon Melgen — including claims that he solicited underage prostitutes, failed to disclose $60,000 in flights on Melgen’s private jet, and tried to help Melgen’s company score a port security contract in the Dominican Republic — but now the senator is fighting back. Previously, he issued denials and tried to move on with the business of being chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but Politico reports that Menendez is doing more interviews condemning the “smears” and his office is urging Democratic pundits to come to his defense. Unfortunately, this effort coincides with an unflattering new report on Menendez’s involvement in federal investigations into Melgen’s practice.
The Washington Post’s report doesn’t reveal that Menendez did anything blatantly illegal, but it’s still eyebrow-raising. While Melgen was under investigation for allegedly overbilling Medicare to the tune of $8.9 million, Menendez tried to intervene with federal health officials. Nothing came of it, but in 2009 and 2012 Menendez complained to officials overseeing Medicare payments that Melgen shouldn’t be penalized for failing to comply with the agency’s ambiguous rules. Federal auditors say that when giving eye injections to treat macular degeneration, the doctor billed the government as if he was using a whole vial for each patient, though one vial can actually be used for several patients. It sounds petty, but at $2,000 per vial, the bills start to add up.
Supposedly, Menendez didn’t know about the formal fraud investigation until the doctor’s office was raided last week. “Senator Menendez was never aware of and has not intervened in any Medicare fraud investigation on behalf of Vitreo Retinal Consultants,” said a statement from the senator’s office.
The Post’s investigation revealed that Melgen was fond of dropping Mendendez’s name, and warned local doctors who questioned his practices that he had friends in the Senate. He referred to Menendez a bit differently with investigators. “He was using Menendez more as a character reference,” said a former federal official. “He thought he was untouchable.” Even if nothing comes of the scandals swirling around Menendez, that’s probably the last time someone will try that strategy.