NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A staffer to U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez used his boss's name to push for the settlement of a multimillion-dollar Medicare dispute involving a wealthy campaign donor, a former health administrator testified in the two men's bribery trial Wednesday.
The staffer was "argumentative and persistent" and said Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen was "a personal friend of the senator," said Louis Jacques of a 2009 phone call. Jacques was an administrator with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and was providing analysis on Melgen's billing dispute with Medicare.
Jacques testified he remembered the call so well because of the staffer's comment that "bad medicine is not illegal, and Medicare should pay these claims." The dispute involved Melgen's practice of "multi-dosing," or treating patients with more than one dose from a vial of medicine, a practice Jacques testified he felt could pose a safety risk for patients.
Jacques testified he was so taken aback by the comment during the call that he stepped out of the room to compose himself for a minute.
"The reason why I remember it specifically is those statements," he said.
Defense attorneys contend the Democratic senator got involved in the Medicare dispute because it provided an example of how Medicare reimbursement policies were inconsistently applied. They sought to show during cross-examination that Medicare policies allowed multi-dosing of other drugs that treated the same condition as the one Melgen was using.
An indictment accuses Menendez of exchanging his political influence for gifts, including flights on Melgen's private jet and luxury hotel stays. In addition to the Medicare dispute, previous testimony described Menendez's involvement in helping the visa applications of Melgen's reputed foreign girlfriends and with a contract dispute over a port screening company Melgen owned in the Dominican Republic.
Later Wednesday, jurors heard from Democratic former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa about a meeting he had with Melgen in 2011 on the same Medicare dispute.
Harkin, who headed a Senate health committee at the time, recalled that Menendez introduced him to Melgen but didn't speak during the 15- or 20-minute meeting in Harkin's office. Harkin testified he took the meeting out of "senatorial courtesy" to a colleague and that Menendez didn't contact him again about it. Harkin said he took no further action.
A former Harkin staffer who also attended the meeting with Melgen testified she felt it wouldn't make sense to get involved in the dispute since it already was under review in the appeals process. Jenelle Krishnamoorthy also testified she considered the meeting to be about Melgen's individual dispute and not a broader policy issue, something prosecutors alleged in the indictment.
An administrator contracted by Medicare testified Wednesday that Menendez's staffers urged her office in 2009 not to seek $8.9 million from Melgen in the dispute because Medicare's billing policies were contradictory.
Melgen eventually paid back the $8.9 million. In a separate case not involving Menendez, he was convicted in Florida in April on multiple counts of health care fraud, submitting false claims and falsifying patients' records. Sentencing in that case was postponed until after the current trial concludes.