By Jonathan Easley - 02/08/13 07:46 PM EST
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) defended his relationship with Florida doctor and political donor Salomon Melgen in an interview with Univision on Friday, saying he didn’t do anything on his friend’s behalf that he doesn’t regularly do for others.
Melgen, a close friend of Menendez’s, reportedly overbilled the U.S. government by almost $9 million in Medicare payments, inviting a federal audit.
“The fact that someone is a donor does not do away with the right or the opportunity to consider whether something is correct or incorrect, to ask questions, raise concerns,” he said.
Univision reporter Lourdes Meluzá pushed Menendez on whether he was aware of the conflict between Melgen and the federal government when he contacted officials to complain of murky billing rules.
Menendez said at the time he raised the issue it was merely an “administrative process,” not a full-blown inquiry into Melgen’s alleged overbilling.
“I simply knew that he was part of an administrative process,” Menendez said. “I don’t know the amount, I don’t know the rest. But the problem is not about interfering in an administrative issue. The issue is understanding a policy that’s confusing.”
Menendez argued that he frequently receives petitions from citizens to address deficiencies in the Medicare system and that it’s “very normal for us to analyze it and decide if there is an incorrect policy” and to “raise questions” when appropriate.
Menendez said he has done the same for other companies as well.
“There’s a big difference between questioning Medicare policy and the confusing situations that arise regarding various regulations and different positions taken by Medicare, and interfering in a case,” Menendez said. “It’s absurd for anyone to think that I could interfere in a case to change the conclusion of that case.”
The Miami Herald has reported on an exchange from a July hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee in which Menendez referenced a contract between the government of the Dominican Republic and a company owned by Melgen, urging U.S. officials to pressure Dominican authorities to fast-track the contract.
Menendez said allegations he was interceding solely because Melgen was a friend and donor were misplaced.
“That’s your interpretation, not mine,” Menendez said, arguing that it was the policy he was pushing and that he was unconcerned with who ultimately won the contract, as long as it went to someone.
A New York Times report has also tied a former assistant of Menendez’s to Melgen’s company.
“No one has bought me, No. 1,” Menendez continued. “No one, ever. In the 20 years I’ve been in Congress, never has it been suggested that that could even be possible. Never in 40 years of public life. So I’m not going to reach this moment in my life to make that a possibility.”
The Senate Ethics Committee is also looking into claims that Menendez acted improperly by flying to the Dominican Republic on Melgen’s private plane. Menendez recently reimbursed Melgen’s company $58,500, the cost of the two trips, from personal funds after a complaint filed by the New Jersey Republican Party alleged that the senator had failed to account for some flights.
Melgen contributed to Menendez’s campaign and took him on at least three trips to the Dominican Republic aboard his private plane in 2010.
Menendez said the issue arose over confusion between his personal reelection campaign and his role as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“When I found out that two had not been paid for by any campaign source, I paid for them myself,” he said.
Melgen’s offices in Florida was raided by the FBI earlier this month. It is unclear whether the FBI’s investigation of Melgen is targeting him for outstanding back taxes, his political contributions to Menendez and other lawmakers, or allegations over engaging with prostitutes.
Menendez has strongly denounced allegations reported by the conservative Daily Caller that he solicited prostitutes while visiting the Dominican Republic. In the Univision interview, he said he was addressing the issue for “the last time.”
“Those are lies intended to slander me, and they’re completely ... not only absurd, but completely false,” he said.