Originally published on March 7, 2015, at NationofChange.org
The Justice Department is preparing to file criminal corruption charges against former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Robert “Bob” Menendez of New Jersey. A federal grand jury began investigating the senator two years ago after the FBI and Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) delved into allegations of Menendez exchanging political favors for lavish gifts from campaign contributor and Florida ophthalmologist, Dr. Salomon Melgen. In exchange for vacation trips and political donations, Menendez has allegedly obstructed a program to improve port security and attempted to interfere with Medicare’s reimbursement policies in order to advance Dr. Melgen’s business prospects.
A month after Sen. Menendez assumed office on January 17, 2006, Dr. Melgen began negotiations to purchase ICSSI, a Dominican company contracted to provide cargo screening in the Dominican Republic. In 2002, ICSSI had acquired a contract to provide screening throughout the country, but the government suspended the deal claiming the contract was too expensive and the bidding was too uncompetitive. Intent on purchasing ICSSI, Dr. Melgen fought to reinstate the contract, which was reportedly worth $500 million over 20 years.
During this time, Menendez began pushing legislation to require screening all ship containers headed to the U.S. In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security donated an x-ray scanning device to the Dominican Republic. Inspectors working at the Dominican port at Multimodal Caucedo found 5,000lbs of cocaine in a cargo container of peaches during the first week of operating the device.
After his company partially purchased ICSSI in 2011, Dr. Melgen’s business contributed over $700,000 to Majority PAC, which spent over $582,000 on Menendez’s behalf during the 2012 elections. At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in July 2012, Menendez advocated for convincing the Dominican government to uphold their screening contract with ICSSI. During the hearing, Menendez hyped the lack of security at their ports while neglecting to disclose the name of the company (ICSSI), his relationship to one of its owners (Dr. Melgen), and the two undocumented trips to the Dominican Republic aboard Dr. Melgen’s private plane in 2010.
In January 2013, Menendez’s former chief counsel, Kerri Talbot, sent an email to a staff member at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) attempting to dissuade the agency from donating any more screening devices to the Dominican Republic. Unbeknownst to the CBP official, Dr. Melgen viewed the donations as a threat to his attempt to monopolize screening equipment and charge the Dominican government to conduct the inspections. That same month, FBI agents and HHS investigators raided Dr. Melgen’s offices in Florida.
During a billing dispute with the government, auditors began investigating allegations that Dr. Melgen had been fraudulently overbilling Medicare. While Dr. Melgen demanded reimbursement for Lucentis, an expensive medication used to treat macular degeneration, Menendez allegedly abused his position by trying to influence Medicare to change its reimbursement polices in order to allow Dr. Melgen to make millions of dollars in profit. In exchange for campaign contributions and secret trips to the Dominican Republic, Menendez advocated for Dr. Melgen in meetings with then-Democratic majority leader Sen. Harry Reid, then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Marilyn Tavenner.
After receiving an anonymous tip, the FBI began investigating allegations that Dr. Melgen had purchased underage prostitutes for Menendez during one of his trips to the Dominican Republic. Although the prostitutes eventually recanted their stories, the FBI and HHS investigators raided Dr. Melgen’s offices in January 2013. Less than a month later, Menendez became Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In March 2013, a federal grand jury in Miami reportedly began investigating Menendez’s questionable relationship with Dr. Melgen. After acknowledging that he had failed to disclose the two free trips aboard Dr. Melgen’s private plane in 2010, Menendez wrote the doctor a personal check for $58,500 to reimburse him for the rides. The Senate Ethics Committee launched an investigation into why Menendez did not disclose the flights earlier.
“As we have said before, we believe all of the Senator’s actions have been appropriate and lawful and the facts will ultimately confirm that,” Menendez spokesperson Tricia Enright stated on Friday. “Any actions taken by Senator Menendez or his office have been to appropriately address public policy issues and not for any other reason.”
Although the Justice Department cannot comment on ongoing investigations, sources have reported to CNN that Attorney General Eric Holder has signed off on prosecutors’ request to proceed with corruption charges against Menendez. An announcement of his indictment is expected within weeks due to the fact that the statute of limitation could impact some of the criminal charges.