POLITICS

Bob Menendez's link to Dominican donor virtually ignored in D.R., where doctor holds clout

AP

 (AP)

The news of possible corruption charges brought against New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez for, among other things, his affiliation with Dominican ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen made a big splash in the U.S. It led the news in virtually all major news outlets.

But in the Dominican Republic, where Dr. Melgen has deep roots, it barely made a bleep.

Listin Diario, the top newspaper in the country, made do with a wire story on Friday and basically nothing else.

Diario Libre and Hoy, the other two major outlets, published a brief story on the scandal that focused mostly on the U.S. Senator.

Some say that it’s because Melgen, the scion of a prominent Dominican political family, is untouchable on the island and the newspapers are afraid to report on him. Others, however, say the lack of coverage is because Dominicans care little about the case.

Jorge Pineda, Editor in Chief at English-language news website Dominican Today, told Fox News Latino that the Menendez-Melgen affair is not quite common knowledge in the D.R.  Just the political and social elite would know who Melgen is and his connections at the highest levels of power.

He said in the D.R. Melgen’s name is immediately associated with that of the Castillos, a prominent family of lawyers whose 82-year-old patriarch pulls all kinds of strings in the presidential palace.

Melgen is the nephew of Marino Vinicio “Vincho” Castillo, a powerful member of the ruling Dominican elite who has worked closely with presidents from Rafael Trujillo in the 50s, to Joaquin Balaguer in the 70s and Leonel Fernandez in the new millennium.

Two of Vincho’s sons - Melgen’s first cousins - hold high posts in the Danilo Medina’s government: Pelegrin Castillo is Minister of Energy and Vinicio Castillo is an outspoken member of Congress and heads the Ethics Commission.

As for Melgen, Pineda described him as a “ricachón,” (wealthy man). “He shows off his fortune ruthlessly,” he said, mentioning a source who has seen first-hand some wild parties at the physician’s vacation home.

Scrutiny of Menendez’s ties to Melgen, who moved to Florida permanently in 1979, has focused on trips the senator took to the Dominican Republic aboard the doctor’s private plane. He has acknowledged taking several actions that could have appeared to benefit Melgen, including contacting a Medicare agency to urge changes to a payment policy that had cost Melgen millions of dollars.

Menendez said he has been friends with Melgen for two decades.

"We celebrated holidays together," he said. "We have been there for family weddings and sad times like funerals and have given each other birthday, holiday and wedding presents just as friends do."

The senator's failure to reimburse Melgen for flights between the Dominican Republic and South Florida and New Jersey on the eye doctor's luxury jet has come under scrutiny.

Menendez and Melgen had flown at least twice in 2010, but the trips went without reimbursement for more than two years.

After news reports in early 2013 raised concerns about lack of payment for the flights, watchdogs complained to the Senate Ethics Committee, which agreed to review the cases. Menendez agreed to reimburse Melgen $58,500.

Menendez's office later disclosed a third flight, from Florida to New Jersey in 2011, saying he had repaid Melgen $11,250 for it.

Last year, the senator disclosed his campaign accounts had paid a law firm $250,000 for legal costs related to Department of Justice and Senate Ethics Committee investigations of his ties to the Floridian.

The flights were just one vestige of the close relations between Menendez and Melgen, a multimillionaire who lavished campaign donations on his friend and allied causes.

The two men often appeared together at Democratic Party and Latino political functions from Washington to Miami. Melgen has contributed nearly $200,000 to Democratic Party candidates since 1998, including $14,200 to Menendez. And in 2012, during Menendez's re-election campaign, Melgen gave $700,000 to a super political action committee that spent more than $580,000 to help Menendez.

Melgen earned renewed scrutiny when government data last year showed he had gotten more money in Medicare reimbursements in 2012 than any other doctor in the country.

A glimpse into the investigation emerged last week, when it was revealed that a federal appeals court had ordered a hearing to determine whether two of Menendez' aides should be compelled to testify before a grand jury about the senator's efforts on behalf of Melgen.

The New Jersey Law Journal reported that the appeals court identified two issues: a billing dispute Melgen had with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and a deal he had to sell port screening equipment to the Dominican Republic government.

The aides have declined to testify about some actions they took, citing a constitutional provision saying a lawmaker can't be questioned about legislative acts anywhere except in Congress.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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