Report cites more ties between Menendez, under-fire doctor

WASHINGTON -- New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez twice spoke to federal health officials about a Medicare billing dispute involving his friend and donor Salomon Melgen, the Washington Post reported today, raising more questions about the ties between the Democratic senator and South Florida eye doctor.

Menendez’s interaction on the doctor’s behalf -- once questioning the billing rules and once asking whether federal auditors had been fair to Melgen -- is now the second known time that Menendez has intervened to help Melgen, a major donor whose offices were raided by the FBI last week.

The links between the two have been under intense scrutiny since the raid and Menendez’s subsequent admission that he took two 2010 trips to the Dominican Republic on Melgen’s private plane but did not report or pay for them until more than two years later. He wrote Melgen a $58,500 check for the trips in January.

Menendez contacted federal officials in 2009 and again last year, the Post reported, as Melgen continued a dispute with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The agency, which oversees Medicare and Medicaid, had ordered Melgen to repay $8.9 million due to improper billing, the Post reported.

Melgen repaid the money but continues to fight that decision to try to reclaim some of the funds.

Menendez’s office told the Post they were unaware that the doctor was under a formal investigation until last week’s raid -- which was focused on potential Medicare fraud, according to the Miami Herald. Menendez’s office told the Post that the senator did not speak to officials about the investigation, but about billing issues.

While more salacious issues grabbed the initial headlines, the unpaid-for trips and  Menendez’s actions on Melgen’s behalf pose the most concrete, damaging questions swirling around Menendez, just as the senator was poised to assume a larger role in Washington as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a key player in immigration reform. The reports raise questions about whether Melgen’s access and donations led to favorable treatment. The Senate ethics committee is looking into the situation.

In January, shortly after Republicans called for an ethics investigation, Menendez wrote a check to Melgen for the two previously unreported 2010 trips. Menendez has said the failure to pay at the time was an “oversight.”

The New York Times has reported that Menendez also urged federal officials to intervene on Melgen’s behalf in a business dispute in the Dominican. Melgen had a stake in a port security firm with a contract to screen cargo, but the contract, potentially worth $500 million, according to the Times, was being blocked.

The Post story today also says Melgen prominently used Menendez’s name when dealing with federal officials and critics in the South Florida medical community. Melgen’s attorney told the paper the doctor believed he was following the proper guidelines in the billing dispute, which questions about whether Melgen overbilled for injections to treat macular degeneration.