Menendez says he acted on donor's behalf

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Robert Menendez acknowledged yesterday that his office contacted U.S. health agencies in a way that would help his major political donor, the same eye doctor whose private jet Menendez used for two personal trips to the Dominican Republic.

Menendez (D-N.J.) denied that he sought to intervene improperly in billing disputes between the doctor and the government.

Menendez said he contacted the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to ask about billing practices and policies. The contacts came during a dispute between CMS and Dr. Salomon Melgen, a longtime friend and campaign supporter of Menendez. The FBI searched Melgen's offices last week.

"The bottom line is, we raised concerns with CMS over policy and over ambiguities that are difficult for medical providers to understand and to seek a clarification of that," Menendez said.

The senator urged the agencies to change what he called an unfair payment policy that had cost Melgen $8.9 million, according to an official close to the investigation.

In a statement, the senator's spokeswoman, Tricia Enright, said Menendez "was never aware of and has not intervened in any Medicare fraud investigation on behalf of Vitreo Retinal Consultants," Melgen's company.

The questions have engulfed Menendez, 59, just as he assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of Menendez's for many years. Last year, his practice gave $700,000 to Majority PAC, a super political action committee set up to fund Democratic candidates for Senate.

Aided by Melgen's donation, the super PAC became the largest outside political committee contributing to Menendez's re-election, spending more than $582,000 on his behalf.

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