NEWARK – Sen. Bob Menendez accompanied his friend Dr. Salomon Melgen to an audience with Senate Health Committee chair Tom Harkin in 2011, but neither man asked Menendez’s powerful colleague to intervene in the doctor’s dispute with Medicare, Harkin testified this afternoon.
Harkin’s appearance as a prosecution witness at the federal corruption trial of Menendez and Melgen was much buzzed-about and anticipated inside the courthouse today, but ultimately a dud for the prosecution. On the stand for barely half an hour, the retired Democratic senator from Iowa offered no major revelations. Harkin appeared uninvolved in Melgen’s attempts to escape a $9 million Medicare judgment, and regarded his former colleague Menendez with general politeness but neither warmth nor animosity.
It was, in fact, manners that dictated Harkin take a meeting with Menendez and Melgen, not any undue pressure, Harkin testified.
“Well, it’s senatorial courtesy,” Harkin said. “If a senator asks you to meet with someone, you usually met with them.”
Menenedez, Melgen, Harkin and at least one of Harkin’s aides met in Harkin’s Senate office on May 18, 2011 for a scheduled 15-minute chat that stretched to 20.
“He talked to me about a problem he was having with (Medicare)…in terms of a drug he was using to treat certain kinds of eye diseases,” said Harkin, who retired from the Senate two years ago.
Harkin’s memory of Menendez during that meeting consisted of his fellow Democratic senator seated in a chair, saying nothing while Melgen did most of the talking, Harkin testified. Yet Melgen only aired his grievances about the billing by Medicare, and did not request Harkin take any action to help him.
“I don’t remember him asking me to do anything,” Harkin said.
After Menendez and Melgen left, Harkin said he recapped the meeting with his staff. While he “wondered” why Medicare would not allow doctors to use more than one dose from a bottle that held enough for three or four patients, Harkin likewise did not think it right Melgen triple-billed the federal government.
Menendez and Harkin never spoke about Melgen again.
Prosecutors called Harkin’s former health policy aide Jenelle Krishnamoorthy to the stand as soon as the senator departed. Though she testified that an email between Menendez’s chief of staff and Harkin’s made the meeting with Melgen something that “had to be done,” Harkin had said earlier he did not think the meeting was unusual.
Appearing in the retired elected official’s uniform of khaki slacks, a blazer, white shirt and light-colored necktie, Harkin still steered a politician’s course while on the stand.
Most answers began with either “to the best of my knowledge” or “to the best of my recollection,” and often ended with “if I’m not mistaken.”
Revered in Iowa but likely unknown by the members of a North Jersey jury, Harkin was folksy and engaging but still in no mood to puff Menendez’s senatorial resume at the expense of his own. When Menendez’s defense attorney Abbe Lowell asked if Menendez and Harkin worked on the Affordable Care Act, Harkin agreed but added an unsolicited qualifier.
“But it must be clear, I don’t recall working intimately with Senator Menendez – we were all involved,” Harkin testified.