U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and Florida eye specialist Salomon Melgen were accused in a 2015 indictment of bribery and other crimes and have pleaded not guilty.
A high-ranking State Department official asked the Dominican Republic’s president for a “favorable resolution” to a contract dispute a few months after U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez arranged a meeting with that official to discuss the contract and other matters, a witness said Tuesday.
The dispute involved Menendez’s friend Salomon Melgen, now a co-defendant in the senator’s corruption trial.
Officials at the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) were spurred to action after Menendez threatened in May 2012 to hold an open congressional hearing about port security in the Dominican Republic if there wasn’t progress on the issue within six weeks.
“I told the senator we were working up some sort of port initiative [and] once we had a concrete initiative we would see if it could leverage a correct [government of the Dominican Republic] decision on the port contract,” William Brownfield, the bureau’s assistant secretary, wrote in an email to his staff shortly after meeting with Menendez.
The congressional hearing never happened and the contract was never enforced, but prosecutors on Tuesday used the related series of events to try to lay the groundwork for their allegation that Menendez did official favors on behalf of Melgen, a Florida eye doctor and longtime friend, as part of a broader bribery scheme. Both men deny the charges.
Jurors were shown emails among INL officials demonstrating the pressure they felt after Menendez’s meeting with Brownfield and heard testimony from Mark A. Wells, a former INL official, who said the bureau wanted to avoid a congressional hearing because it would have required hours of preparation and could have resulted in drastic changes to how it implemented various programs.
“It made this a high priority for us,” Wells said of Menendez’s threat. He said that during a visit Brownfield made to the Dominican Republic in October 2012, Brownfield told the country’s president that there was “intense congressional interest over the favorable resolution of this contract dispute,” meaning a resolution in Melgen’s favor.
Jurors heard testimony Monday that Melgen had a 50 percent stake in a company called ICSSI that had been awarded a 20-year contract to provide screening of shipping containers at Dominican ports. Melgen stood to benefit financially from the arrangement, but the contract was not being enforced and was the subject of a dispute between ICSSI and the Dominican government.
In another email shown to jurors Tuesday, a high-ranking official at the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic wrote to Wells that ICSSI’s contract was opposed by the Dominican government, the Dominican private sector and U.S Customs and Border Protection.
“My boss is still pushing on this,” Wells wrote in response during the May 2012 exchange.
During their cross-examination of Wells, defense attorneys pointed out that in 2012, Menendez was a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has oversight of foreign relations issues. They portrayed Menendez as having more general policy concerns about security in the Dominican Republic, of which the ICSSI contract dispute was just one part.
In response to questions by defense attorneys, Wells testified that Congress “constantly” asks questions about State Department programs and that beyond the narrow scope of ICSSI’s contract dispute, Menendez also inquired about INL efforts to combat corruption more broadly at Dominican ports.
Wells said there were general concerns at the time about shipping containers leaving Dominican ports and headed for the U.S. with drugs or other contraband. He clarified that the congressional hearing Menendez threatened would likely have been about the “total issue of port security” and not specifically about ICSSI’s contract.
To the point of Menendez’s more general interest in security in the Dominican Republic, Wells was asked by defense attorneys to read another email sent between INL officials that said, “The senator is particularly passionate about DR issues and does not like to hear anything short of ‘new ideas’ or ‘new efforts’ underway.”
As the trial proceeded Tuesday morning, reporters were sent a 4,000-word email from Menendez’s office that highlighted his “proven leadership on port, national security” by listing dozens of measures and initiatives the senator has supported in those areas.
“As a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and Global Narcotics Affairs, and the highest-ranking Hispanic American in Congress,” the email read, “Bob remains keenly interested in U.S.-Latin American relations, maritime security, and the role that port security plays in fighting drug trafficking, defending the homeland, and improving security throughout the Western Hemisphere.”
Besides helping Melgen get his company’s contract enforced, Menendez is accused of improperly using his office to help young women from three countries get visas to visit Melgen in Florida and of intervening in a dispute Melgen had with the Obama administration over Medicare reimbursements.
Prosecutors allege that in exchange for his help, Melgen gave Menendez flights, luxury vacations and more than $700,000 in political contributions.
Jurors began to hear testimony Tuesday afternoon from Loretta Higginbotham, an employee with a Medicare contractor, who testified that Melgen had received a notice in August 2009 that he had overbilled Medicare and other health care providers by nearly $9 million. At dispute was his practice of drawing multiple doses of Lucentis, an expensive medication for macular degeneration, from what were supposed to be single-dose vials and billing for each dose independently.
Proceedings ended Tuesday with attorneys arguing with the judge over what questions the defense could ask Higginbotham during cross-examination. The trial is scheduled to resume Wednesday morning.
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