OPINION

Rick Sanchez: The curious case against Bob Menendez and his Latino friend

Sen. Menendez arrives to speak at a press conference on April 1, 2015 in Newark, New Jersey.

Sen. Menendez arrives to speak at a press conference on April 1, 2015 in Newark, New Jersey.  (2015 Getty Images)

Wow. What a coincidence. After years of watching wars fought on behalf of billionaires who made millions and millions of dollars and got thousands of our best, brightest and bravest killed, the U.S. Justice Department has decided to go after corruption in Washington. Yes!

Let’s see. Who’d they get? Did they get one of those scoundrel politicians who probably took money from a defense contractor in exchange for starting and maintaining a completely ridiculous and unwinnable war, which ended up being well — both ridiculous and unwinnable? Last I checked, nobody doles out money like defense contractors. And politicians, what with their hands out, lining up to take the loot like cheap prostitutes on payday, shouldn’t be too hard to find. Is it one of them? No? Really?

Then it must be some politician in bed with the oil and gas sector, right? Those big oil guys really know how to buy influence. According to opensecrets.org, oil and gas companies paid out roughly 137 million dollars in the last two years to the campaign coffers of certain politicians. No? Not one of them?

How about Wall Street?  Forget about it. Try 2 billion dollars since 1990. Talk about raking it in by writing checks to the right people in the highest echelons of power. There is nobody who gets richer by giving to the right crowd than these guys. Whew!

In fact, the money in politics in Washington is so out of control, the numbers are doubling every ten years. It’s staggering! According to the center for responsive politics, almost 40 billion dollars was spent on federal elections between 2007 and 2012. And yes, that’s more than double what was spent between 1997 and 2002.   

Why are giant industries paying off politicians with huge campaign contributions? Why? Because it’s great business! Most studies show it’s worth every penny, with a return on investment of up to 22,000 percent from their donations and lobbying efforts. And these donors, whether it’s big oil, big defense or big unions make sure their guys get elected. Then those same guys and gals vote, simply put, in accordance with the whims and needs of their contributors. Shameful, but true.  

The Justice Department and our courts appear more interested in low-hanging fruit, than in ending real widespread corruption. To genuinely combat the horrible influence of big money in politics, I suggest they bypass the twigs and spoiled fruit and just knock down the whole damn tree.

- Rick Sanchez

Billions of dollars are made under this seemingly corrupt and unsustainable system, despite the fact that poll after poll finds that Americans, by as much as 90 percent, want to reduce the role of money in politics.

So that said, who’d they get? Who are the real bad guys, so we can say “Goodnight to them” ala Tony Montana? New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez and West Palm Beach Eye Doctor Saloman Melgen. Who?

So wait a minute, Bob Menendez, who ranks by far as one of the poorest members of the U.S. Senate and a doctor who asked him to look into a Medicare dispute? Those are the bad asses of Washington corruption?  By the way, it’s important to note these two Latinos have known each other for decades. They’ve attended each other family's functions and the doctor, who’s become wealthy seeing as many as 20 patients a day to try and cure their blindness, has in fact contributed generously to Menendez’s campaign.     

So what did he really do? And what did he get for it? Here’s what happened. When Dr. Melgen was going through a billing dispute with Medicare and believed a pharmaceutical company to the tune of almost 9 million dollars was ripping him off, he asked Senator Menendez to get a clarification on Medicare’s billing policy.

The dispute centers on an expensive drug called Lucentis and how much of it, a Vitreo-Retinal specialist like Melgen, is allowed to use from each vial to treat his patients.

Melgen, who would not go on the record at the advise of his lawyers, says each vial of Lucentis provides enough medication to treat several patients. However, Genentech (which manufactures Lucentis) and Medicare contend that he should only treat one patient per vial and if need be, throw the rest of it away. 

As Melgen sees it, it’s absolutely crazy and ridiculous to throw away perfectly good medicine that could save his patients vision, seeming to suggest that Medicare is simply taking the side of “big pharma” against doctors like him. (Note: According to Americans for Campaign Reform, the pharmaceutical industry spent more than $1.5 billion from 1998 to 2008 to lobby Washington’s regulatory agencies and committees, which is more than any other industry.)

Melgen suggests he billed according to the number of patients he treated, rather than the amount of Lucentis that he was ordering and came away convinced that he was doing right by his patients. After all, he works 12-hour daily shifts. But Medicare did not see it that way. And when it hit him with a bill for 8.9 million dollars, he paid it. But fearing that he had been wronged, he began making calls and one of his calls was to his long time friend and confidant, Senator Bob Menendez.

The dispute was never settled. Melgen says he got absolutely no relief, no usable information and no favors from his call to Menendez. In fact, he argues that his call accomplished absolutely nothing except to link his name to a national story which he says is more about the case against a standing U.S. Senator than it is about him, and has brought him nothing but grief.

Legal scholars who’ve studied corruption cases say that, given Menendez’s long-standing personal relationship with Melgen, the government has it’s work cut out to prove its case. The question many will ask is, where’s the real quid pro quo? Especially considering that the “quid” could be based on a friendship and the “quo” was a phone call that resulted in no resolution whatsoever for Melgen.

Now, as of the writing of this article, no one knows what other evidence may be presented beyond what is known about the relationship between this politician and his donor or whether there’s more to Melgen’s problems with Medicare than a billing dispute that will undoubtedly cost him millions in legal fees.

In the 68-page indictment, prosecutors accuse Menendez of helping his longtime friend acquire visas for several girlfriends over the years, and accepting invitations for vacations. I wonder how many politicians in Washington are calling friends right about now suggesting they keep quiet about similar “horrendous crimes.”     

Pardon me for being skeptical, but I can’t help but wonder once again, as I did in the case against Former Virginia Governor Bob Macdonald and his “vitamin doctor friend,” that the Justice Department and our courts appear more interested in low-hanging fruit, than in ending real widespread corruption. To genuinely combat the horrible influence of big money in politics, I suggest they bypass the twigs and spoiled fruit and just knock down the whole damn tree.

Melgen may not have profited from his relationship with Menendez, but Wall Street bankers, defense contractors, big unions, big pharma, big oil and many others who write billions in checks to politicians obviously do profit. We know that! Isn’t that where their attention really out to be?   

Rick Sanchez is a contributor for Fox News Latino.

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