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Sen. Menendez Case Revolves Around Friendship With Florida Eye Doctor

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It was arraignment day for Senator Robert Menendez. The New Jersey Democrat pled not guilty to multiple counts of corruption. It's a case brought by the Justice Department that revolves around the senator's relationship with a Florida eye doctor named Salomon Melgen. The Justice Department claims Melgen, a longtime friend and donor to Menendez, gave gifts to the senator in exchange for political favors. At a press conference last night, Senator Menendez says that's wrong.

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SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: Prosecutors at the Justice Department don't know the difference between friendship and corruption and have chosen to twist my duties as a senator and my friendship into something that is improper.

CORNISH: To learn more about Melgen and this friendship, we turn to Jay Weaver. He's courts reporter for The Miami Herald and has been following this case. Welcome to the program.

JAY WEAVER: Hi, how are you?

CORNISH: Now, Senator Menendez - obviously, very prominent Democrat - but many of our listeners may not have heard of the other defendant, Salomon Melgen. And I understand that he's from the Dominican Republic but a well-known figure in the Miami area.

WEAVER: Yes. Doctor Melgen has been living in South Florida for 25-plus years, and he has been investing in a lot of side businesses. He's not only known as this prolific Medicare biller to the tune of millions and millions and millions of dollars a year, but he also privately invests in everything from, you know, stocks to new businesses to startups, and he has had some spectacular success and some spectacular failure.

CORNISH: As we heard earlier, Senator Menendez there saying that they are just friends. How well does he know Mr. Melgen?

WEAVER: He knows him very well. They've been close friends. They view each other like brothers.

CORNISH: Let's talk more about the charges because this indictment is basically arguing that this friendship came with very significant benefits.

WEAVER: Yes. Basically what the government is saying is Menendez, in exchange for all of these gifts including traveling on Doctor Melgen's private plane numerous times down to his villa - what the government is saying is there were strings attached, and those strings involved the senator in turn doing a lot of favors on behalf of Doctor Melgen to help resolve a multimillion dollar Medicare billing dispute, and that's just one of them. That's the biggest one.

CORNISH: So help us understand. What will prosecutors need to do then to prove that this is conspiracy?

WEAVER: Well, they filed this indictment as a honest services fraud case, and under a recent Supreme Court precedent, they not only have to show that there was a conspiracy between these two men to deprive the public of honest services - in this case, Menendez doing all these special-treatment favors for the doctor - Doctor Melgen - but they're going to have to show that there was a quid pro quo, a specific payment of a gift or a campaign donation over a period of time to essentially pay for these political favors.

CORNISH: Now that these two are defendants together in a federal case, do you think their relationship will survive?

WEAVER: That's a very good question because the Justice Department will now try to squeeze Doctor Melgen. They have him indicted in one indictment in the corruption case involving his good friend, Senator Menendez. He may still be indicted separately for overbilling Medicare for unnecessary medical procedures, and he may be faced with only one choice, to turn on his good friend, Senator Menendez. So Doctor Melgen is in the situation right now where he is going to have to probably cooperate if he wants to save his life, his career, everything.

CORNISH: Jay Weaver - he's the courts reporter for The Miami Herald. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WEAVER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.