POLITICS

FBI may bring criminal charges against Sen. Menendez as early as this week

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J  (AP2011)

Sen. Robert Menendez could face criminal charges within days, the Wall Street Journal is reporting.

The veteran New Jersey lawmaker, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is said to have been under investigation by the FBI for more than two years.

The agency has been looking at whether Menendez accepted gifts improperly from a friend and one of his biggest campaign donors, Salomon Melgen, a Florida doctor who has himself faced charges years ago for over-billing Medicare.

Menendez has denied that he did anything wrong, and has said that Melgen is a close friend.

The Journal reports that “Washington-based federal prosecutors specializing in public corruption cases” are set to file charges against Menendez in New Jersey.

The Journal added that both a lawyer and spokeswoman for the senator declined to comment.

Melgen, a Dominican native who settled in the United States in 1980, flew many influential lawmakers on his private plane, including then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who reimbursed the doctor.

Melgen and his family have donated about $1 million to Menendez campaigns and committees on which he served.

Questions about the senator’s possibly inappropriate actions involving the doctor arose after the disclosure that Menendez had flown on Melgen’s private plane three times, but did not report those trips. He later reimbursed the doctor for the trips, saying the failure to report the trips had been an oversight.

Also catching investigators’ eyes was Menendez’s reported advocacy for Melgen when he was accused of over-billing Medicare. Melgen was one of the top recipients of Medicare reimbursements at a time when he was contributing heavily to Democrats. He received $21 million in Medicare reimbursements in 2012 alone, according to The New York Times.

Investigators said that, for example, Melgen would get a vial of the medication, which would provide up to four times the amount that a patient requires. But Melgen, the investigators charged, used one vial to treat three or four patients, but then billed as if he had purchased a new vial each time.

Melgen then would be reimbursed $6,000 to $8,000 for a vial that cost him $2,000, The New York Times said. Investigators said that in in 2007 and 2008, for instance, he overbilled by $9 million, which he then paid back.

The New York Times reports that the lead prosecutor going after Menendez is one of the most experienced and respected inside the Justice Department. The newspaper says that Peter M. Koski has successfully prosecuted several high-profile public corruption cases.

Some observers believe that the Obama administration is allowing the pursuit of Menendez to go forward because of the senator’s outspokenness against several of the president’s foreign policy moves.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who on Monday announced his presidential candidacy, has said the Justice Department investigation and likely charges against Menendez are clearly political.

"It raises a suggestion to other Democrats,” Cruz said recently, “that if you dare part from the Obama White House that criminal prosecutions will be used potentially as a political weapon against you."

Menendez has been a vociferous advocate of stronger sanctions against Iran, and he has expressed grave doubts about U.S. efforts to negotiate a treaty over Tehran's nuclear program, positions that have put him at odds with the president. In a very public defiance of the White House, Menendez also escorted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress before a controversial speech on Capitol Hill that the Obama administration denounced.

Cruz said: "This investigation has been going on for over a year and yet the very week they announce a pending indictment comes within hours after Sen. Menendez showing courage to speak out against President Obama's dangerous foreign policy."

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