March 15 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Senator Robert Menendez would “welcome any review” of his conduct, his spokeswoman said, responding to a report that a grand jury is probing his role in promoting the business interests of a longtime donor and friend.
The federal grand jury in Miami is investigating the New Jersey Democrat’s intervention in matters affecting Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, the Washington Post reported yesterday, citing three unidentified people familiar with the matter. Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, hasn’t been asked to testify as part of the probe, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News.
Federal agents have interviewed witnesses about ties between Menendez and Melgen, and the grand jury has issued subpoenas for the doctor’s business and financial records, the Post reported, citing people who asked to not be identified in discussing an active probe. Grand juries are a preliminary step in prosecutions and don’t always lead to criminal charges.
Tricia Enright, the spokeswoman for Menendez, said yesterday that the senator’s “actions have always been appropriate, and we believe the facts will confirm that.”
“Every day, more evidence emerges that the false smears against Senator Menendez are nothing but an elaborate campaign orchestrated by Republican political operatives,” Enright said in an e-mailed statement.
Menendez’s approval ratings have plunged amid allegations that he improperly helped Melgen, even as fellow Democrats say they’re standing behind him. A Quinnipiac University poll released last month showed that 36 percent of New Jersey voters approve of his performance, down 15 points from January. Seventy percent of those polled, including 72 percent of independents, said they had read or heard about the controversy.
On Jan. 29, the FBI, along with officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services inspector general’s office, raided Melgen’s West Palm Beach, Florida, office as part of a probe into possible Medicare fraud, a person with knowledge of the investigation told Bloomberg News and asked not to be identified in discussing the matter.
The raid fueled scrutiny of Menendez’s ties to Melgen, who donated more than $700,000 last year to the senator’s campaign and other Senate Democrats. Menendez in 2009 and in 2012 raised concerns with top officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about the agency’s finding that the doctor had overbilled the government by $8.9 million, the Washington Post reported.
Federal agents conducted the raid primarily to look into possible fraudulent billing activities by Melgen’s ophthalmology business, according to the Miami Herald.
The person with knowledge of the raid cautioned that it didn’t mean the action was related to the Menendez accusations.
Following the raid, Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, the top Republican on the chamber’s six-member Ethics Committee, said the panel would review the matter.
According to the Washington Post, FBI agents also are looking into Menendez’s role in pushing enforcement of a port-security contract in the Dominican Republic held by a company in which Melgen is an investor.
Melgen stood to gain a windfall if the contract, which calls for operating X-ray scanners to screen cargo at the country’s ports, was enforced, the Post said.
Menendez, who has denied any wrongdoing, said he wrote a $58,500 check in January to reimburse Melgen for two 2010 trips the lawmaker took to the Dominican Republic on Melgen’s private jet once the senator’s staff discovered the trips hadn’t been paid for earlier.
“No one has bought me,” Menendez said in a Feb. 8 interview with Univision, a Spanish-language television station. “No one. Ever.”
Inquiries he made on Melgen’s behalf were part of “normal process,” Menendez said in the interview, which the network translated into English.
Melgen, a wealthy eye surgeon born in the Dominican Republic, has been a prolific donor to and friend of Menendez for years. According to published reports, Menendez has accompanied Melgen a number of times to the Dominican Republic, where Melgen owns a villa in Casa de Campo, an oceanfront gated golf resort.
Daniel Stein, the former head of the public corruption unit in the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, said any grand jury probe would probably be comprehensive.
“If it’s true that a federal grand jury investigation is under way, then it will likely be wide-ranging and thorough,” Stein said in an e-mail. “Investigators will be trying to find evidence of the parties’ intent, which would typically lead them to try to place this interaction in a broader context.”
Menendez, 59, retains support from Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, who told reporters last month that his confidence in Menendez “hasn’t wavered at all” because of the allegations.
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