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Sen. Robert Menendez investigated over ties to donor

A grand jury examines whether donor Dr. Salomon Melgen overbilled for Medicare patients while U.S. investigators are probing whether Menendez improperly aided Melgen and hid costly plane tickets.

March 15, 2013|By Richard A. Serrano, Los Angeles Times
  • Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has denied interfering in the investigation of Dr. Salomon Melgen , but recently acknowledged that he should have repaid Melgen $58,500 for the two plane rides.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has denied interfering in the investigation… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — Federal law enforcement officials are pursuing two parallel investigations into the relationship between Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and a wealthy political donor, with a grand jury investigation underway in South Florida and a public corruption review by special prosecutors in Washington, according to sources close to the matter.

The dual investigations are designed to sift through allegations that Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, aided Dr. Salomon Melgen, a South Florida ophthalmologist, in his business dealings in return for political contributions. The investigations will also explore whether the senator improperly intervened after Melgen came under scrutiny for healthcare fraud.

"We've got two separate investigations," said one federal source with knowledge about the evolving cases. "At the heart of it is whether Sen. Menendez's association here is questionable."

Authorities said the grand jury inquiry centers on allegations that Melgen overbilled the federal government for Medicare treatment for his eye patients, which he has denied. FBI agents raided his office in West Palm Beach earlier this year and left with boxes of material. According to sources, FBI agents and federal prosecutors in South Florida are reviewing that material and other potential evidence, as well as interviewing witnesses.

Separately, sources said, prosecutors in Washington assigned to the Criminal Division's Public Integrity Section at the Department of Justice are reviewing whether Menendez improperly interceded on Melgen's behalf in the healthcare fraud investigation, and tried to hide the fact that Melgen provided him expensive airplane tickets to the Dominican Republic.

Menendez has denied interfering in the healthcare investigation, but did recently acknowledge that he should have repaid Melgen $58,500 for the two plane rides on Melgen's personal jet in 2010. He said he has since done that. The Senate Ethics Committee, meanwhile, is reviewing why the senator did not disclosure the flights much sooner.

Since 2006 Melgen and his family have given Menendez and the New Jersey Democratic Party almost $175,000 in political contributions.

In a statement released Friday, his office said the senator expects to be exonerated.

"Every day, more evidence emerges that the false smears against Sen. Menendez are nothing but an elaborate campaign orchestrated by Republican political operatives," the statement said. "As we have said all along, we welcome any review because Sen. Menendez's actions have always been appropriate, and we believe the facts will confirm that."

Melgen could not be reached for comment, but his Washington attorney, Kirk Ogrosky, a white-collar criminal defense attorney who specializes in handling healthcare cases, issued a statement saying, "Dr. Melgen has been a friend and supporter of Sen. Menendez for over 20 years. We are confident that any inquiry will determine that Dr. Melgen acted appropriately at all times."

The Washington Post first reported about the grand jury investigation.

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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