NEWARK – Sen. Bob Menendez paused before a bank of microphones as he left his corruption trial Tuesday afternoon, making rare public comments outside the federal courthouse to criticize President Donald Trump’s slow acknowledgment of the disaster wrought by Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico.
Menendez said he was on the phone during breaks from his trial receiving updates from the island territory, and was sent messages and videos that show the extent of the devastation. As the senator turned away from the microphones and began to walk to his waiting car, he could not resist answering one last shouted question about whether he would go to Puerto Rico to see the damage first-hand.
“Stay tuned,” he answered.
Less communicative was Abbe Lowell, the high-powered defense lawyer representing Menendez and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Lowell did not acknowledge questions shouted his way about an email prankster who duped Lowell into believing Kushner had emailed.
On Monday, the person posing as Kushner asked his attorney about deleting nude pictures supposedly sent by White House officials to his recently revealed private email account. Business Insider reported Lowell, after a few questions, wrote back: “Don’t delete. Don’t send to anyone. Let’s chat in a bit.”
When asked about the prankster outside court, Lowell grimaced but said nothing and kept walking.
The prosecution case in the trial of Menendez and his friend Dr. Salomon Melgen meandered from Dominican port security to the Medicare fraud that Melgen was convicted of by a jury in Florida during testimony in court this afternoon.
Prosecutors spent the morning showing how Menendez allegedly used his influence with the State Department to get concerns about enforcing a port security contract with a company part-owned by Melgen directly to the Dominican Republic’s president. But defense lawyers parried during cross-examination in the afternoon, bringing up the fact the State Department itself had launched a program to step up security screenings on the island to address drug trafficking and potential radioactive material that could be smuggled through. They suggested Menendez had the same concerns.
Menendez, who was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee for the Western Hemisphere, was also concerned about corruption within the Dominican government affecting the proper use of X-ray screeners donated by the US, a State Department official on the witness stand admitted during cross-examination.
Things grew contentious between prosecutors and Melgen’s lawyers later in the afternoon as they sparred over how deeply the defense could go into the billing dispute between Melgen and Medicare where Menendez is accused of intervening.
Melgen, an ophthalmologist, overbilled Medicare by nearly $9 million by reusing vials of a medicine treating macular degeneration. Using the extra solution, Melgen would stretch a single vial of the drug – intended for one patient – to treat three or four, then bill Medicare for three or four of the $2,000 vials rather than the single one he used.
Melgen’s attorney Kirk Ogrosky argued he should be allowed to show there was no Medicare rule demanding billing per vial. Outside the presence of the jury, Ogrosky argued in front of Judge William Walls that Menendez was querying over legitimate questions about how Medicare reimbursed doctors.
“Your Honor, this is critical for the motive of this case,” Ogrosky said.
The prosecution was having none of it, objecting loudly to the second page of a cost breakdown Ogrosky wished to query a Medicare accounting contractor on.
“We’re going to be here til 2018, Your Honor,” government prosecutor Monique Abrashami said.
Lowell chimed in as well, saying jurors should know drug companies get a “windfall” when doctors bill the normal way.
“This is a case of bribery,” Walls said. “This is not a case of alleged Medicare over-payment. That was in Florida.”
Answering the motive argument with one of their own, the prosecution argued the $9 million in delinquent payments to Medicare – which Melgen eventually paid – gave Melgen a need for help from a powerful senator.
“He bribed Sen. Menendez in order not to pay that,” Abrashami said.
And, for the first time so far during the trial, Salomon Melgen laughed out loud from his seat at the defense table.