The Blind Spot Endures: A Profile of Just One of Trump’s Last Minute Intercessions

Senator Bob Menendez

Like any household where an abusive patriarch intoxicated by his own absolute power has exited after beating up his family, we are all breathing a collective sigh of relief.

The civil servants mostly of color have cleaned up all of the excrement and graffiti in the marbled hallways of the Capitol built by their slave ancestors that was left by Trump’s army of neo-Confederates that killed a police officer in the name of their “uncivil war”.

It’s tempting to only focus on the reassuring avuncular presence of President Joe Biden, who is working overtime to restore that sense of basic decency that’s been lacking for so long.

Like the family that’s returned from vacation to find a ransacked home, we still have yet to compose an accurate inventory of what was stolen. Are the crooks still in the basement? Are the pets still alive? Is great grandma’s wedding ring where Mom left it?

We were so distracted by his frontal violent assault on our Capitol by his minions, we failed to properly account for his ‘out the door’ crime wave committed in the final hours of his presidency with his pardoning of 70 people and commuting the sentences of another 73.

As Trump and his posse gallop for the swamps of Florida, we need to put the blood hounds on the scent given off by the stench of so many of these pardons.

We need the names of the facilitating law firms and lawyers cross referenced with their corporate client so there can be a proper accounting.

No doubt, there will be some on the list that were meritorious, righting by executive action true miscarriages of justice.

As could be expected, health care fraudsters with Jersey connections made Trump’s rogues gallery roll call.

While our elected politicians all wonder aloud what’s to account for our stark race-based health/wealth inequalities revealed by COVID-19, they should read their rap sheets to get a clue.

One of those who benefited from a Trump commutation was Dr. Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist, who was a major campaign donor to Senator Bob Menendez, and got a 17-year federal sentence for his conviction in a $73 million Medicare fraud case. Now, thanks to support from Menendez and dozens of others he gets 13 years shaved off his sentence.

In 2015, Menendez was indicted on federal corruption charges. The DOJ alleged that between 2006 and 2013, he had taken close to $1 million worth of “lavish gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to influence the outcome of ongoing contractual and Medicare billing disputes worth tens of millions of dollars to Melgen and to support the visa applications of several of Melgen’s girlfriends.”

In 2017, a hung jury resulted in a mistrial and prosecutors opted to not retry the case, but Menendez bootstrapped that into a kind of exoneration.

He cast himself as a victim.

“I want to thank the jury, 12 New Jerseyans who saw through the government’s false claims and used their Jersey common sense to reject it,” Menendez told reporters, Politico reported.

“The way this case started was wrong, the way it was investigated was wrong, the way it was prosecuted was wrong, and the way it was tried was wrong as well,” he said. “Certain elements of the FBI and of our state cannot understand or, even worse, accept that the Latino kid from Union City and Hudson County can grow up and be a U.S. senator and be honest.”

Throughout his Melgen tribulation the leadership of New Jersey’s Democratic establishment rallied around him with the same partisan blindness displayed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for Trump.

Yet, what the jury could not see his Senate colleagues did.

In April of 2018 Menendez was “severely admonished” by the bi-partisan U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics for over a six-year period taking and not disclosing “gifts of significant value from Dr. Melgen” while at the same time using his position “as a member of the Senate to advance Dr. Melgen’s personal and business interests.”

Lost in all of this was just how awful were Melgen’s offenses.  These were not some kind of white-collar victimless violations. There was real flesh and blood to these crimes.

All too often when we see a headline like $73 million Medicare fraud our jaundiced eyes glaze over. Here in the Soprano state that could be just a couple of municipal bond offerings or the proceeds from a few big pharma insider stock tips.

But Dr. Melgen, one of the nation’s most prolific Medicare billers in his day, was so much more industrious and disciplined in his efforts that it merits closer examination and appreciation.

The enterprising Melgen specialized in treating macular degeneration, the major cause of vision loss for people 50 or over.

According to Judge Kenneth Marra, who presided over Melgen’s sentencing, his practice “was conducted in a manner where he routinely, and as a matter of standard practice, diagnosed patients with medical conditions they did not have in order to allow him to bill for diagnostic procedures and medical services that were not medically necessary or justified.”

Judge Marra continued. “Specifically, the Court finds that Defendant routinely falsely diagnosed patients with either wet or dry Age-Related Macular Degeneration. This mis-diagnosis allowed Defendant routinely and as a matter of standard practice to subject his patients to medically unjustified procedures and treatment, and then fraudulently bill for those procedures.”

All totaled, the Miami Herald reported prosecutors proved that “about 77 percent of Melgen’s wet macular degeneration and 61.8 percent of his dry macular degeneration diagnoses were unsupported by medical records.”

But that wasn’t all.

Melgen was also tagged by federal regulators for using single vials of Lucentis, a drug that is injected in the eye to slow the loss of eyesight related to diabetes, to treat three patients despite the fact a vial is prescribed to be used on a single patient. Not only did this scam net Melgen a huge windfall but, according to the Centers for Disease Control drug guidelines, put his own patients at risk of infection.

 The Palm Beach Post quoted Dr. Robert Bergen, a retired New Jersey retinal specialist who reviewed for prosecutors the charts of over 300 of Melgen’s patients. He said that Melgen was notorious in the world of specialty eye medicine. “Everybody knew about this guy,” Bergen told the paper after he testified Melgen’s treatment of his patients was “totally disgraceful.”

“It’s the most egregious example of totally taking advantage of patients, not caring about diagnosing them properly, it was the antitheses of what a decent physician should do,” said Bergen.

As federal health regulators were zeroing in on Melgen, Menendez appealed for intervention with his Senate colleagues and the Secretary of Health and Human Services for a re-interpretation of the regulations under which the government was pursuing Melgen.

It was Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino who seemed to see the scale of the miscarriage of justice with Trump’s commutation clearest.

“It wasn’t just the tens of millions of dollars that Melgen had bilked from taxpayers,” wrote Cerabino. “That was bad enough. But not the heart of it.”

Cerabino continues. “There was an element of unnecessary physical pain for those unsuspecting patients who had to endure Melgen’s self-enriching, medically dubious eye treatments, which included eye injections and retinal laser blasts.”

The Palm Beach Post columnist points out the treatments were described at trial by expert witnesses as “elder abuse,” “unconscionable” and “horrifying.”

“That’s the guy who needs to be set free?” asked Cerabino. “The guy who found a way to get rich by mistreating old people’s eyes?”

Evidently the suffering of Melgen’s army of unsuspecting elderly patients was of no consequence for Menendez, who according to his statement after the commutation was still willing to use his influence for the wayward eye doctor.

“Months ago, I was asked if I could offer insight about an old friend, and I did, along with what I understand were more than 100 individuals and organizations, including his former patients and local Hispanic groups familiar with Sal’s leadership and philanthropy in the South Florida community,” Menendez said in a statement.

The blind spot endures.

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