New Jersey U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez accepted nearly $1 million in lavish gifts and campaign contributions from Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen in exchange for the Democrat’s political help, including intervention on behalf of Melgen’s businesses and for three of his visa-seeking foreign girlfriends.
In a 68-page indictment handed down on Wednesday, the Department of Justice accused Menendez and Melgen, both 61, of engaging in corruption and bribery between 2006 and 2013.
What Menendez did for Melgen
According to the indictment, Menendez helped three of Melgen’s girlfriends — a Brazilian, a Dominican and a Ukrainian — obtain U.S. visas in 2007 and 2008.
Melgen, who has a wife named Flor, met his Brazilian girlfriend — a model, actress and lawyer — in 2007. Melgen suggested that his girlfriend move to the U.S. to attend school in South Florida, and she applied for a student visa. On July 24, 2008, a day before her visa application appointment in Brazil, Menendez’s senior policy adviser emailed the deputy assistant secretary of state in Brazil in order to grease the wheels.
The woman was granted the pass and eventually enrolled at the University of Miami to pursue a law degree.
According to the indictment, Melgen financed her tuition through his Sal Melgen Foundation, a non-profit foundation that is aimed at “helping with the educational needs of disadvantaged persons.”
Menendez also helped Melgen’s Dominican girlfriend and her sister obtain visas in 2008. Melgen met the woman, also a model, in 2005. After the sisters’ visas were initially denied on Nov. 6, 2008, Menendez and his staff intervened with the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic. That seemed to help the sisters’ case, as they were granted the visas following a re-interview on Dec. 1, 2008.
Menendez’s help was so instrumental in the ploy that one of his staffers emailed another, writing, “In my view, this is ONLY DUE to the fact that [Robert Menendez] intervened. I’ve told RM.”
Menendez also intervened to ensure that Melgen’s Ukrainian girlfriend was granted a visa in early 2007. The woman, also a model, was living in Spain at the time. After Menendez sent a letter endorsing her, she was granted the visa on Feb. 22, 2007.
According to the indictment, this intervention was evidence that Menendez sought to “influence the immigration visa proceedings of Melgen’s foreign girlfriends.”
Menendez also pressured the State Department to approve a deal that would benefit Melgen’s interests in a port security deal in the Dominican Republic. Melgen’s company, ICSSI, had a 20-year contract with the Dominican government to x-ray shipping containers going in and out of the nation’s ports. ICSSI was set to receive $90 for each container it scanned.
According to the indictment, Menendez and his staff intervened with the assistant secretary of state for Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs to gain U.S. approval of the deal.
And on Jan. 11, 2013, Menendez directed a staffer to contact U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to put a hold on its plan to donate monitoring equipment to the Dominican Republic. Such a donation would “threaten” Melgen’s interests, according to the indictment.
But Menendez, through his staff, told CBP that he had concerns that agents of influence may have sought to use the donated equipment because it “will be less effective than the outside contractor’s.” That contractor was, of course, Melgen’s company.
Menendez also stepped in to help Melgen after his Palm Beach medical practice became embroiled in a dispute with the Zone Program Integrity Contractor for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS). The agency slapped Melgen with a $8.9 million judgement stemming from his billing for the drug Lucentis.
According to the indictment, Melgen “multi-dosed” the drug. While each vile of the drug contains one dose, Melgen was getting up to three doses per vial and overbilling Medicare for the difference.
When Melgen informed Menendez that he was set to be audited on the matter, the senator emailed staff on June 12, 2009, saying that “we need to help him.”
Menendez sought out meetings with officials at CMS and with Kathleen Sebelius, then the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Ironically, when Sebelius’s staff was finally able to make Sebelius available for a conference call on Aug. 6, 2010, on the matter, Menendez’s staff had to postpone the chat because he was flying on Melgen’s private jet headed to his home in the Dominican Republic.
Menendez eventually met with both Sebelius and CMS’s then-acting director, Marilyn Tavenner. He met with Tavenner first, on June 7, 2012. He met with Sebelius on Aug. 2. Harry Reid, then the Senate majority leader, sat in on that meeting. Neither meeting helped Melgen’s plea for relief.
What Melgen did for Menendez
In exchange for the political help, Melgen showered Menendez with vacations and plane rides that the Democrat used for himself and his girlfriends. Melgen also funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Menendez and his Democratic allies.
In 2012, Melgen donated $700,000 to the Majority PAC, a political action committee controlled by associates of Reid. Nearly all of that amount, $600,000, was earmarked for Menendez. Those donations were made at around the time that Reid brokered the meeting with Sebelius on Melgen’s Medicare overbilling case.
According to the indictment, Menendez began flying on Melgen’s private plane to the doctor’s Dominican residence in 2006. Menendez would travel by himself, with Melgen, or with a girlfriend, according to the indictment. On one occasion, Melgen flew Menendez’s girlfriend at the time to meet him at the resort, called Casa de Campo.
The indictment lists flights embarking to and from Casa de Campo on Aug. 18, 2006, April 4, 2007, Aug. 30, 2008, May 28, 2010 and Aug. 6, 2010.
On Oct. 8, 2010, Melgen paid $890 to fly Menendez first-class from Newark to West Palm Beach. Three days later, Melgen chartered a private flight for Menendez on which he was the only passenger.
Melgen also forked over $4,934 to pay for Menendez’s three-night stay at the Park Hyatt Paris-Vindome. There, Menendez visited a woman with whom he had a personal relationship. She was in town with her sister, who traveled to Paris on business.
In 2011 and 2012, Melgen gave $40,000 to The Fund to Uphold the Constitution, a slush fund to help Menendez with a recall effort.
Melgen’s donations to Menendez and other Democrats came from himself, family members and through his companies.
Wednesday’s indictment lists 14 counts against Menendez, including one for conspiracy, one for violating the travel act, eight for bribery, three counts of honest services fraud, and one for making false statements.
He has not issued a statement since the indictment was handed down. But when it was reported last month that the indictment was imminent, Menendez denied all wrongdoing and said he will not resign his seat.
“Government corruption – at any level of elected office – corrodes the public trust and weakens our democratic system,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell in a statement after the indictment was released.
“It is the fundamental responsibility of the Department of Justice to hold public officials accountable by conducting thorough investigations and seeking an indictment when the facts and the law support it.”
Menendez announced Wednesday night that he would temporarily step down as the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He also vowed, “this is not how my career is going to end.”
“I am not going anywhere. I’m angry and ready to fight because today contradicts my public service and my entire life,” Menendez said at a press conference.
Fellow New Jersey Democrat Sen. Cory Booker also issued a statement of support.
“Senator Menendez has never wavered in his commitment to the people of New Jersey. He’s been an invaluable resource and a mentor to me since I arrived in the Senate.”
“Our nation and state face critical issues and I will continue to partner with Senator Menendez to take on the challenges before us.”
This article has been updated to include Menendez’s statement.