Prosecutors think Sen. Bob Menendez swapped bribes paid to his wife in exchange for political favors

Nadine Arslanian and her husband Senator Bob Menendez

Prosecutors investigating Sen. Bob Menendez suspect that his wife received gifts or services from individuals in exchange for favors from the New Jersey politician who was previously indicted for bribery and corruption related to his effort to cover up the biggest Medicare fraud case in history.

The Wall Street Journal reported in November that the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York subpoenaed associates of Nadine Arslanian, who married Menendez in 2020.

Five years after his escape from federal corruption charges in a bribery indictment that ended in a mistrial, reports surfaced that Manhattan federal prosecutors had contacted people connected to Menendez and sent at least one subpoena in the case.

Associates of Menendez’s wife have been subpoenaed by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York — and in the course of the investigation they have been asked for information about both Arslanian and Menendez, the Wall Street Journal reported in November.

Menendez and Arslanian were married on October 3, 2020 in an intimate and socially distanced ceremony at Holy Martyrs Armenian Church in Bayside, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens.

Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, first met Arslanian, an international businesswoman from Bergen County, almost a decade earlier but the couple reconnected years later at a political event and began dating.

Menendez, who has two adult children and three grandchildren from a previous marriage, has been prominent in efforts over many years to get the US government to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide.

Corinne Ramey, a reporter covering white-collar crime, and James Fanelli, who covers federal prosecutors in New York, claimed that federal law enforcement authorities issued subpoenas issued in recent months have asked for information about both Arslanian and Menendez.

Investigators’ interest in Arslanian was first reported in the Wall Street Journal but Semafor broke the news that the corrupt lawmaker was again under investigation.

The current probe dates back to at least 2019, when federal investigators executed search warrants against New Jersey businessman Wael Hana, an associate of Arslanian who runs the only company allowed to certify as halal meat exports to Egypt.

Court documents reportedly indicate that prosecutors are looking into possible undisclosed foreign lobbying. Hana’s lawyer told the Journal that his client obtained his halal certification contract with Egypt “without any assistance whatsoever from any US public official.”

The investigation is separate from the 2015 indictment that led to a mistrial after federal prosecutors alleged Menendez accepted $1 million in gifts—including flights on a private jet and vacations—from a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist who relied on the lawmaker’s help with visa applications for his girlfriends, with a dispute over a port contract in the Dominican Republic, and with covering up the doctor’s Medicare fraud.

Menendez and Dr. Salomon Melgen were charged with a conspiracy in which the New Jersey Senator lobbied for the doctor’s business interests in exchange for political donations and gifts that included luxury vacations, flights on a private plane and stays at a villa in an exclusive Dominican Republic resort frequented by celebrities including Beyonce and Jay-Z.

In 2009, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) discovered that Melgen had overbilled Medicare for $8.9 million for a drug called Lucentis, which is used to treat macular degeneration and other retina problems.

Two years later, in 2011, Melgen’s business was slapped with a $11 million lien from the IRS. In 2015, Melgen was formally charged with more than 76 counts of health care fraud and making false statements, according to the Justice Department.

Melgen’s practice raised red flags for investigators by dividing a single vial of the expensive liquid drug Lucentis into four doses and billing Medicare $2,120 for each dose.

In a pure New Jersey-style political power play on Menendez’s part, the lawmaker met with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Director Marilyn Tavenner on June 7, 2012 in an attempt to convince her that Melgen did not owe the federal government $9 million for Medicare overbilling.

The very next day — June 8, 2012 — Melgen’s company Vitreo-Retinal Consultants, contributed $300,000 to the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC run by two former top staffers of Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), who was then the Majority Leader.

Menendez decided to turn up the political pressure by pressuring Reid to go over Tavenner’s head and set up a meeting with the CMS Director’s boss, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius.

Reid, Menendez, Sebelius, and Jonathan Blum, deputy administrator of CMS, attended a meeting on August 2, 2012.

On October 16, 2012, Melgen’s company donated another $300,000 to Reid’s Super Majority PAC, bringing the company’s total contributions in 2012 to $700,000.

The trial showed that Menendez also pressured State Department officials to give visas to three young women described as Melgen’s girlfriends.

The men both pleaded not guilty and Menendez has vehemently denied the allegations, but Melgen was convicted by a federal jury that found him guilty of sixty-seven criminal counts related to his participation in a health care fraud scheme involving more than $90 million from the Medicare program, alone.

“For years, Dr. Melgen knowingly made false diagnoses and submitted fraudulent bills in order to illegally line his pockets with millions of dollars intended for the legitimate diagnosis and treatment of Medicare patients,” said South Florida U.S. Attorney Benjamin G. Greenberg.

On his way out of office, former President Donald Trump issued pardons to at least seven doctors or health care entrepreneurs who were convicted in huge Medicare swindles that prosecutors said often harmed or endangered elderly and infirm patients while fleecing taxpayers. Among them was Melgen, who application was

“These aren’t just technical financial crimes. These were major, major crimes,” said Louis Saccoccio, chief executive officer of the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association, an advocacy group.

The Trump White House said that all deserved a second chance but Matthew Smith, executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, said: “All of us are shaking our heads with these insurance fraud criminals just walking free.”

Trump commuted the sentence of Melgen, who had spent four years in federal prison for fraud after he endangered patients with unnecessary medical care they described as “truly horrific” and “barbaric and inhumane.”

Prosecutors had accused Melgen of endangering patients with needless injections to treat macular degeneration and other unnecessary medical care, describing his actions as “truly horrific” and “barbaric and inhumane.”

Melgen “not only defrauded the Medicare program of tens of millions of dollars, but he abused his patients — who were elderly, infirm, and often disabled — in the process,” prosecutors wrote. These treatments “involved sticking needles in their eyes, burning their retinas with a laser and injecting dyes into their bloodstream.”

Prosecutors said the scheme raked in “a staggering amount of money.”

In 2018, he was sentenced to 17 years after he was found guilty of stealing $73 million from Medicare. Prosecutors contended that Melgen actually stole up to $105 million from the federal insurance program between 2008 and 2013, by giving patients treatments and tests that couldn’t help them.

In commuting Melgen’s sentence, Trump cited support from Menendez and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida. “Numerous patients and friends testify to his generosity in treating all patients, especially those unable to pay or unable to afford healthcare insurance,” the statement said.

In a written statement, Melgen thanked Trump, called his conviction “a serious miscarriage of justice,” and said: “Throughout this ordeal, I have come to realize the very deep flaws in our justice system and how people are at the complete mercy of prosecutors and judges. As of today, I am committed to fighting for unjustly incarcerated people.”

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