WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A politically prominent Florida eye doctor asked a judge for mercy Thursday as prosecutors pushed for a 30-year sentence on his conviction for Medicare fraud.
But Dr. Salomon Melgen never directly apologized or accepted responsibility during his one-minute statement to U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra. The Harvard-trained doctor would only admit he "made mistakes" while saying he always tried to help his patients, even those other doctors had given up on.
The 63-year-old Dominican native conceded he "lost my way" in his personal life, possibly alluding to the mistresses he had taken. He also faces a possible retrial in New Jersey on separate charges that he bribed Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.
Melgen was convicted in April on 67 counts of Medicare fraud that prosecutors say exceeded $100 million. They want a 30-year sentence, although Marra could give Melgen a life term. Melgen's attorneys asked Marra for a short but unspecified sentence, saying he is in poor health. At his age, they say, a sentence of any significant length would likely be a life sentence, which they don't think he deserves. They have argued that prosecutors only proved he stole $64,000.
Wearing blue jail overalls over a gray sweat shirt, his legs shackled, Melgen shuffled to the courtroom podium to make his first comments about the case. Reading his statement in a clear but halting voice, he said he he hoped the judge would "see the full picture of who I am" and believe the dozens of patients who spoke in court or wrote on his behalf.
"I know I made mistakes but it was always my intent to help my patients," he told Marra. "I was trained to not give up and do everything I could to help." He then asked the judge for mercy. Marra will impose a sentence later.
During final arguments in the five-day hearing spread over five weeks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Stefin told Marra a long sentence is justified because Melgen performed painful but unnecessary tests and treatments on frail and elderly patients, in many cases for diseases they didn't have, including injections into the eye.
"He did this to rake in millions and millions of dollars from the Medicare program that he was not entitled to," Stefin said. He said Melgen did it to support a "rich and famous" lifestyle that included a 6,500-square-foot (605-square-meter) beachfront home in Palm Beach County, a vacation home in the Dominican Republic and a private jet.
"This was a truly horrendous and horrible crime and an abuse of his trust as a medical doctor," Stefin said.
But defense attorney Matthew Menchel painted a different picture, saying Melgen was an aggressive doctor who restored sight to patients other doctors had given up on, enabling them to drive, read and see their grandchildren. He said Melgen treated many needy patients for free, both in Florida and the Dominican Republic, and would even give them money.
"The government has tried to portray Dr. Melgen as some kind of monster driven only by greed. That is simply untrue," he said. He pointed to one patient who after testifying during the trial walked over to Melgen and hugged him.
Melgen has been in custody since his conviction. Separately, in November, a federal jury was hung after a 2 ½-month trial where prosecutors tried to prove Melgen's gifts to Menendez were actually bribes. In return, they say, Menendez interceded with Medicare officials investigating his practice, obtained visas for Melgen's foreign mistresses and pressured the State Department to intervene in a business dispute he had with the Dominican government.
Menendez and Melgen have denied wrongdoing, saying the European and Dominican vacations and other gifts were tokens of their longtime friendship. Prosecutors haven't said whether they will retry the bribery case.
Prosecutors said Melgen was the nation's highest-paid Medicare provider for five straight years.
Melgen became politically active in 1997, after treating Florida Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, who appointed him to a state board.
He was soon hosting Democratic fundraisers, and eventually became friends with Menendez. Melgen paid for trips he and the senator took to France and to the doctor's home at a Dominican resort. Menendez reimbursed Melgen $58,500 after the trips became public knowledge.