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Florida doctor in Menendez bribery case charged with Medicare fraud

Sen. Robert Menendez's friend Salomon Melgen now indicted on accusations of defrauding Medicare

A Florida doctor accused of bribing U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez has been indicted on suspicion of carrying out extensive Medicare fraud at his eye-care practice for a decade and for treating patients for disorders they didn't have, officials said Tuesday.

A federal grand jury charged Salomon E. Melgen, 61, of North Palm Beach, Fla., with 76 counts of fraud for allegations that include intentionally misdiagnosing eye patients and filing Medicare claims for procedures that were never carried out, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Florida's Southern District.

Officials say the fraud may have begun as early as 2004 and extended through December 2013 as Melgen operated a high-volume practice that sometimes saw more than 100 patients in a single day, many of them Medicare beneficiaries.

The ophthalmologist is already charged with giving nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign donations to Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, in exchange for Menendez using his office to help Melgen's business and private interests.

“We have reviewed the indictment and are confident in Dr. Melgen's innocence,” Maria Dominguez, an attorney for Melgen, told the Los Angeles Times in an email Wednesday morning.

In one five-year span from 2008 to 2013, officials said, Melgen obtained a "substantial portion" of $105 million in Medicare reimbursements through "fraudulent" billing.

“Patients fearing blindness sought treatment from Dr. Melgen’s office,” said Shimon Richmond, special agent in charge of the U.S. Health and Human Services inspector general's office for the Miami area, in a statement. “Instead, they allegedly received medically unreasonable and unnecessary tests and procedures for which they and taxpayers paid millions of dollars."

Earlier this month, Melgen and Menendez were each federally indicted in New Jersey on one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud. Menendez, 61, was also charged with making false statements.

Both have pleaded not guilty in that case, which marks the first time since 2008 that a sitting senator has faced criminal charges. Menendez has denied wrongdoing and vowed to fight the charges.

“Prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption,” Menendez said earlier this month.

Melgen was scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday for the latest indictment, which focuses on Melgen's personal practice at Vitreo-Retinal Consultants of the Palm Beaches, rather than on his relationship with Menendez. Officials say Melgen had four offices in Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties.

The charges include 46 counts of healthcare fraud, 19 counts of making, presenting and filing false, fictitious and fraudulent claims and 11 counts of making false statements relating to healthcare, according to the U.S. attorney's news release.

Officials said in a statement that sometimes Melgen would make false diagnoses for macular degeneration and other retinal disorders on patients' charts and "would allegedly perform and bill for medically unreasonable and unnecessary tests and procedures, which included unnecessary laser surgeries and eye injections."

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

9:40 a.m., April 15: This story was updated to add a comment from Melgen's attorney.

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