Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and his co-defendant, Dr. Salomon Melgen, are expected to face trial in early 2017 on a score of corruption and bribery charges.
Menendez had sought to have the indictments thrown out but on September 13 a Philadelphia-based appeals court refused, upholding an earlier ruling that rejected Menendez’ claim that the “speech or debate” clause of the U.S. Constitution shielded him from prosecution. “Members of Congress are not to be ‘super-citizens’ immune from criminal liability,” Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro wrote for the three-judge panel in July.
Federal prosecutors immediately asked that dates be set for a trial. They pointed out, “It has been 17 months since a grand jury sitting in the District of New Jersey indicted Senator Menendez and Dr. Melgen for numerous counts of corruption.”
Menendez has pledged to stay in office while defending himself, but has given up his post as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Although his lawyers have promised to take his efforts to get the charges dismissed all the way to the Supreme Court, the way is now clear for the criminal trial to take place.
The appeals court was not asked to rule based on the July 27 Supreme Court decision overturning former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s bribery conviction. In that case, the Court narrowed the definition of “official acts” that might occur as the result of a bribe. Menendez’ lawyers most certainly will argue that his help to Melgen fell outside “official acts.” On September 8, the Justice Department announced that it would not seek to retry McDonnell.
According to NLPC Chairman Ken Boehm, “The McDonnell decision is a setback to the fight against corruption. It remains to be seen what impact it will have on the Menendez prosecution. If necessary, I would recommend that prosecutors render a superseding indictment that tightens up the bribery allegations.”
A Friend in Need
Menendez was indicted in April 2015 in New Jersey, along with Melgen, his largest campaign contributor. Melgen is a wealthy south Florida eye doctor who was born in the Dominican Republic and is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Two weeks later, Melgen was indicted in Miami on separate charges of Medicare fraud. Melgen billed Medicare $190 million and received $105 million, much of which prosecutors allege was the result of fraud. In 2012, his clinic was the top recipient of Medicare reimbursements in the whole country. On August 26, Melgen’s trial date was delayed from September 19 to March 6 of next year.
The New Jersey charges relate to Menendez’ attempts to derail a Medicare fraud investigation into Melgen’s practice and securing visas for three Melgen “girlfriends.” The indictment also alleges that Menendez pushed a port security deal in the Dominican Republic that would have provided a windfall for Melgen. In return, the indictment alleges Melgen provided Menendez with private jet ride rides, Dominican vacations, and donations to his legal defense fund.
The port security deal was exposed by NLPC through a front-page New York Times story on February 1, 2013. NLPC provided information to the Times on an exclusive basis, apparently prompting the federal criminal investigation.
According to the Medicare fraud indictment, Melgen performed unnecessary surgeries and injections on unsuspecting elderly people, including people with prosthetic eyes and patients who were totally blind and stood no chance of benefitting from treatment. The indictment cites case after case of patients who were purposely misdiagnosed, resulting in Medicare bills often totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars per patient.
According to Tom Anderson, the director of NLPC’s Government Integrity Project who uncovered Menendez’ role in the Dominican port deal, “The picture painted of Melgen in the indictment and in the civil lawsuits is one of a moral monster. Although the facts have been reported, where is the firestorm of media outrage? Just imagine if Menendez were a conservative lawmaker and Melgen were a Republican donor.”