The Justice Department alleged this week that Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., pushed his colleagues and the Obama administration to change federal policy in order to help a man that authorities charge lavished him with gifts.
In a brief filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, the department said Menendez asked then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to pressure the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to reverse a decision that hurt Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. Melgen is thought to have plied Menendez with lavish vacations, and authorities are trying to show those gifts influenced Menendez's actions in the corruption case they are bringing against him.
Menendez also allegedly helped Melgen secure visas for his girlfriends in exchange for trips and campaign contributions. A federal corruption trial against Menendez begins next week, and he faces 14 counts of bribery and conspiracy, including accepting trips to Paris and the Dominican Republic.
The Justice Department brief said Menendez first enlisted Reid's help in November 2011 to "amplify the pressure" on the Obama administration.
Reid, the Justice Department alleged, contacted the White House deputy chief of staff at that time and told her Menendez was upset about CMS's treatment of Melgen, who owed $8.9 million for overbilling Medicare.
The brief said Reid asked the White House deputy chief of staff to call CMS. But the White House official, who wasn't identified, opted not to contact the agency, "recognizing that the matter involved a dispute between a single doctor and an administrative agency, not a policy matter."
The Justice Department argued Reid's contact with the White House is proof Menendez tried to pressure another government official to perform an "official act."
Lawyers for Menendez and Melgen, who is named a co-defendant in the case, pushed back against the Justice Department's assertions, saying in a letter to Judge William Walls the trial brief was a "lengthy, lurid and one-sided narrative of the case" filled with "new, irrelevant and inflammatory ‘facts.'"
The lawyers said the brief was filed "solely to generate adverse pretrial publicity" for Menendez and Melgen and give the media "a rhetorically florid preview" of the government's opening argument.
In addition to detailing Reid's contact with the White House, the Justice Department said Reid and Menendez met with then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in Reid's office in the Capitol on Aug. 12, 2012, where the New Jersey senator "personally pressured her to intervene in [Melgen's] billing dispute."
Sebelius, though, told Menendez she was "powerless" to intervene, the Justice Department said.
"The meeting ended without a resolution satisfactory to Menendez," according to the trial brief.
Menendez benefited from thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Melgen, including a $300,000 check to Majority PAC that arrived June 7, 2012, the same day Menendez met with the acting CMS administrator, prosecutors allege. During that meeting, the Justice Department said, Menendez asked CMS to change the reimbursement policy that led to the order that Melgen repay $8.9 million for overbilling Medicare.
Majority PAC supported Democratic Senate candidates.
In total, Melgen donated $600,000 to Majority PAC in 2012, and the money was earmarked specifically for New Jersey and intended to benefit Menendez, prosecutors said in court filings.
Both Menendez and Melgen have pleaded not guilty and said they haven't done anything wrong.