US Sen. Menendez indicted on corruption charges – NorthJersey.com
Flights on a private jet, vacations in a Paris hotel suite and a Caribbean villa, and nearly $800,000 in campaign contributions were some of the bribes Sen. Bob Menendez received to promote the business and personal interests of Florida eye specialist Salomon Melgen, a 14-count federal indictment charged Wednesday.
In exchange, the indictment said, Menendez tried to help Melgen keep $9 million that Medicare said he overbilled the government; pressed the State Department to provide visas so Melgen’s girlfriends from Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Ukraine could study in or visit Florida; and pushed for federal pressure to sway the Dominican government over a port security contract Melgen owned.
Menendez and Melgen have been friends for more than 20 years, and the senator has stressed that they often exchanged gifts. To get a conviction, legal experts said, the government is going to have to prove that the benefits Melgen provided were specifically tied to official actions by Menendez.
Menendez, who became the 12th senator in history to be indicted, vowed at a Newark news conference not only to stay in office but said that he would be vindicated at trial.
“I’m angry and ready to fight,” Menendez said. “I’m angry because prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption and have chosen to twist my duties as a senator — and as a friend — into something improper.”
Menendez later announced in a news release he would temporarily step down as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, which he led last year.
Menendez and Melgen were each indicted by a grand jury in Newark on one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud. Menendez also was charged with one count of making false statements, a charge based on his failure to disclose gifts he received from Melgen on his personal financial disclosure form.
Melgen, 60, of North Palm Beach, Fla., is a millionaire Dominican-born ophthalmologist who is suing Medicare over $9 million he was found to have overcharged in 2007 and 2008. He also owned a company that had a contract to screen cargo leaving the Dominican Republic, but the government there was not honoring the contract.
Menendez, 61, of Paramus, received widespread support from fellow Democrats on Wednesday, and even tacit support from Governor Christie, a Republican and former U.S. attorney who once approved subpoenas in an investigation of Menendez.
“Everybody deserves the presumption of innocence and there’s no reason for me or anybody else to get out ahead of themselves,” Christie said in a statement released by his office.
Most of the campaign contributions cited in the indictment were used to help with Menendez’s 2012 reelection effort. His opponent in that race, state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos of Monmouth County, called the charges “another sad chapter for New Jersey and America, and Senator Menendez needs to think long and hard about whether he can be an effective senator while simultaneously fighting serious federal charges.”
One Washington-based Republican group, American Commitment, is running an online campaign to get Menendez to resign, but the National Republican Senatorial Committee said only that his actions “reinforce all that American people believe is wrong with Washington Democrats.”
Prosecutors alleged Menendez accepted domestic and international flights on private jets, first-class domestic airfare, the use of a Caribbean villa, access to an exclusive resort in the Dominican Republic, a stay at a five-star hotel in Paris, expensive meals, golf outings and campaign contributions to a legal fund Menendez created and a “super” political action committee that helped with his reelection in 2012.
Menendez, in turn, used his Senate staff to further Melgen’s financial and personal interests, prosecutors alleged.
Unidentified staff members in Menendez’s office solicited donations from Melgen while arranging to get his needs addressed by top government officials, including ambassadors, other senators and members of the president’s Cabinet, according to the indictment.
Citing internal office emails, the indictment described Menendez’s efforts to get visas for girlfriends fast-tracked. Menendez also allegedly asked U.S. officials to pressure the Dominican government to honor a cargo-screening contract held by a company Melgen bought, which would earn Melgen millions of dollars paid by shippers.
Menendez’s office, the indictment said, also applied pressure on numerous officials over a series of years related to Melgen’s Medicare dispute. Melgen had been drawing multiple doses of the drug Lucentis – which sells for $2,000 in what is supposed to be a single-dose vial – and then billing Medicare for each dose.
The standard Medicare reimbursement allows doctors to recover the cost of a drug plus 6 percent, so Melgen would be due $2,120 for each dose administered. But if he got four doses from a single vial, he would collect $8,480 while spending only $2,000 on the drugs.
At a meeting in August 2012 with Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, Menendez complained that Melgen was being treated unfairly, according to the indictment.
“The secretary of HHS disagreed with Menendez position, explaining that [Medicare] was not going to pay for the same vial of medicine twice,” the indictment said.
Melgen provided free flights for Menendez and guests, often on Melgen’s private jet, 20 times between 2006 and 2010, prosecutors alleged, shuttling the senator between Washington, D.C., New Jersey, West Palm Beach and the Dominican Republic for vacations.
In April 2010, when Menendez spent a weekend in Paris with a woman “with whom he had a personal relationship,” Melgen picked up the tab for three nights in the executive suite at the five-star Park Hyatt Paris Vendome, worth nearly $5,000.
Menendez personally emailed Melgen before the trip asking him to book the Park Suite King or Park Suite Deluxe rooms, specifically requesting rooms with a “limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower” among other amenities, the indictment stated.
“You can call American Express Rewards and they will book it for you,” Menendez wrote in an email, according to the indictment. “It would need to be in my name.”
None of the gifts was disclosed as required on annual ethics reports Menendez submitted.
The indictment does not cite any communications that explicitly link the series of gifts the senator received to his official actions on Melgen’s behalf, but it highlights their close proximity in several cases.
In August 2010, for example, on the same day Menendez’s staff was pressing for a meeting with Sebelius, Menendez was on Melgen’s private jet on a flight from West Palm Beach to Melgan’s villa in a resort in the Dominican Republic.
And on the same day in May 2012 that Menendez tried to enlist the help of a top official at the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs to intervene in the contract dispute between Melgen and the Dominican government, Melgen donated $40,000 to the New Jersey Democratic State Committee and $20,000 to the senator’s legal fund.
12th senator indicted
The indictment has been anticipated for nearly a month, since CNN reported March 6 that top Justice Department lawyers had signed off on the charges. Many officials and groups emailed reactions within minutes of the news breaking.
Menendez is the 12th senator to be indicted while in office, and the second from New Jersey in the past 35 years. Democrat Harrison A. Williams was convicted in 1981 for taking bribes from undercover FBI agents and resigned in 1982 as the Senate was preparing a vote on expulsion.
The Menendez case is brought by a Justice Department that saw its last trial of a sitting senator, the 2008 conviction of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, be overturned in 2009 because of prosecutorial misconduct. Menendez, in a court ruling inadvertently released in February, showed he was trying to thwart the investigation by citing the Constitution’s “speech or debate clause,” which bars the executive branch from questioning Congress about legislative acts.
Appointed to the Senate in 2006 to fill the vacancy created when Jon Corzine became governor, Menendez has been elected twice, and his current term runs through January 2019. He is 35th in seniority in the Senate, and 15th among Democrats. He is the top-ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, which he led in 2013 and 2014.
Menendez and the Justice Department have crossed paths before.
In 2006, when Menendez was running for his first term, U.S. Attorney Chris Christie’s office subpoenaed a non-profit group that had been renting a building Menendez owned and had received federal grants he helped secure.
That investigation led to no charges, and in 2011, Menendez received a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia saying that the case had been transferred there and closed.
A grand jury in 2008 also heard testimony about efforts Menendez made on behalf of a real estate development in the Meadowlands that needed help getting permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, according to court documents that became public in February in the trial of former Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero.
James Dausch, a top executive of Mills Corp., told the grand jury that Menendez was very helpful in getting the corps to issue permits. Afterward, Dausch said, he was asked by Menendez or someone speaking to raise $50,000 in campaign contributions.
Rose through the ranks
Born in New York to a carpenter and a seamstress who left their native Cuba before Fidel Castro seized control, Menendez grew up in a tenement in Union City and rose through the ranks of Hudson County politics, a familiar target of federal corruption investigations.
In 1982, Menendez testified at a corruption trial against his onetime mentor, William Musto, and Menendez would often talk later about wearing a bulletproof vest because of the death threats he received.
In 1986, Menendez became mayor of Union City and served in the state Legislature from 1987 until he won a seat in the House in 1992.
In Congress, he focused on foreign affairs, battling presidents of both parties over efforts to relax the trade embargo on Cuba. Over the past two years, that issue and the negotiations to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon have been the source of frequent disagreements between Menendez and President Obama.
Staff Writers Shawn Boburg and Melissa Hayes contributed. Email: email@example.com Blog: northjersey.com/thepoliticalstate
U.S. Senator Bob Menendez
Education: St. Peter’s College, bachelor’s degree, 1976; Rutgers University School of Law, 1979.
Public Service: U.S. Senate, 2006 to present, former chairman of Foreign Relations Committee; U.S House of Representatives, 1992-2006; Union City mayor, 1986-1992; served in New Jersey Assembly, Senate; Union City Board of Education, 1978.
Family: Divorced, two children
Dr. Salomon Melgen
Hometown: West Palm Beach, Florida
Education: graduate National University of Pedro Henriquez Urena, Dominican Republic
Occupation: Ophthalmology, owns Vitreo-Retinal Consultants in Florida
Family: Married, two children
Sen. Bob Menendez and Salomon Melgen were each charged with the following:
One count of conspiracy to commit bribery and honest services fraud for allegedly carrying out a scheme to use Menendez’s position as a senator to enrich themselves through bribery.
One count of violating the Travel Act, for allegedly engaging in interstate travel and foreign commerce with the intent to commit bribery.
Eight counts of bribery. Three relate to free round-trip flights Menendez accepted, allegedly in exchange for official action on Melgen’s behalf. Two stem from donations Melgen made to a legal defense fund for Menendez, allegedly in exchange for Menendez’s influence, as the need arose. Three others involve hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations by Melgen to political committees backing Menendez, allegedly in exchange for helping Melgen in disputes with the U.S. government over millions of dollars in Medicare overbillings and with the Dominican government over a lucrative contract for a Melgen-owned port security company.
Three counts of honest services fraud. Two involve wire fraud for causing pilots on Melgen’s private jet to communicate to air traffic controllers across state lines on flights alleged to be bribes. And one alleges mail fraud when Melgen mailed a campaign donation described as a bribe.
Menendez was charged with one additional count of making false statements, for allegedly concealing the gifts from Melgen by purposely failing to list them on financial disclosure forms that senators are required to file annually.
A look at ways Salomon Melgen, his relatives and his company were able to help Bob Menendez over the years.
Sources: Center for Responsive Politics, records filed with Federal Election Commission, NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission and Internal Revenue Service
Sen. Bob Menendez has disclosed taking several trips on Salomon Melgen’s private plane. Here are details of those trips, as disclosed by Menendez, and how they were paid for:
May 14-16, 2010: Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, when Menendez was chairman, paid $5,400 to fly him from Atlanta, to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Aug. 6-9 and Sept. 3-6, 2010: Menendez flew from southern Florida to the Dominican Republic and flew a round trip from Teterboro to the Dominican Republic, and in January 2013 reimbursed Melgen $58,500 for the trips.
Jan. 30, 2011: Menendez flew to New Jersey from campaign meetings and fundraisers in Miami, and reimbursed Melgen $11,250 in January 2014.
According to authorities, however, Menendez took many more flights paid for by Melgen. The indictment included the 2010 trips Menendez reimbursed, but noted that they were not paid for at the time of the flight. The full listing of flights included in the indictment:
Aug. 18, 2006: Menendez and an unidentified guest traveled on Melgen’s private jet from West Palm Beach, Fla., to the Dominican Republic for a visit to Melgen’s villa in Casa de Campo.
Aug. 24, 2006: Menendez and his guest flew from the Dominican Republic to Teterboro, with a stop in West Palm Beach.
April 4, 2007: Menendez flew on Melgen’s private jet from West Palm Beach to the Dominican Republic, again for a visit to the villa.
April 8, 2007: Melgen “furnished” a free flight from the Dominican Republic to Fort Lauderdale on a private jet owned by an associate of his.
Aug. 30, 2008: Melgen sent his private jet from the Dominican Republic to Teterboro to pick up Menendez and a guest – a different guest than the one in 2006 – to fly them for vacation at the Casa de Campo villa. They stayed in West Palm Beach overnight before completing the trip the next day.
Sept. 4, 2008: Menendez and his guest flew on Melgen’s private jet from the Dominican Republic to Teterboro, with a stop in West Palm Beach.
May 28, 2010: A third guest of Menendez’s flew on Melgen’s private jet from West Palm Beach to the Dominican Republic in order to meet Menendez for vacation at the villa.
June 1, 2010: The guest flew on Melgen’s plane from the Dominican Republic to West Palm Beach after the vacation.
Aug. 6, 2010: Melgen sent his private jet from West Palm Beach to the Washington metropolitan area to pick up Mendendez. The senator flew to the Dominican Republic for vacation at the villa, with a stop in West Palm Beach.
Aug. 9, 2010: Menendez flew Melgen’s jet from the Dominican Republic to Teterboro, with a stop in West Palm Beach.
Sept. 3, 2010: Menendez and a guest – the third guest, from May – flew on Melgen’s private jet from Teterboro to the Dominican Republic, with a stop in West Palm Beach, for a vacation that included Punta Cana.
Sept. 6, 2010: Menendez and his guest flew on Melgen’s jet from the Dominican Republic to Teterboro, with a stop in West Palm Beach.
Oct. 8, 2010: Melgen, through an unidentified individual, bought Menendez a first-class flight, at a cost of $890, from Newark to West Palm Beach.
Oct. 11, 2010: Through the unidentified individual, Melgen paid about $8,036 to charter a private jet to fly Menendez from West Palm Beach to the Washington metropolitan area. Menendez was the only passenger on the flight.