Former Menendez staffer: Outreach for doctor friend ‘routine’

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

One of the issues in the Menendez trial is how much time the senator’s staff spent trying to help the eye doctor and c0-defendant, Salomon Melgen.

The defense Wednesday called to the witness stand Karissa Willhite, a 15-year former Menendez staffer and deputy chief of staff for policy. She said it was common for Senate staffers to make inquiries within the government on behalf of constituents and supporters.

Melgen at the time was being accused by Medicare of overbilling by $8.9 million in 2008 and 2009. He was injecting Lucentis multiple times from a single vial, then billing Medicare for multiple vials. Each vial cost $2,000. Willhite said her outreach to Medicare on Melgen’s behalf, and that of other staffers, was to clear up confusing rules.

Defense attorney Abbe Lowell asked her, “Would an individual issue [like Melgen’s] sometimes raise a broader policy concern?”

“Yes,” she said, suggesting the efforts of Menendez’s staff were all proper and above board. But on cross-examination, federal prosecutor Peter Koski tried to pick her testimony apart. She was talking to Melgen twice a day at one point, he got her to say.

Koski: “Did you work on his $8.9 million dispute?”

Willhite: “I worked on the policy behind the dispute.”

Koski: “Did you work on the Melgen case?”

Willhite: “We worked on the issue.”

Koski: “And Sen. Menendez asked you to do that?”

Willhite: “Yes, he asked us to do that. He was the boss.”

Menendez and Melgen are best friends. The government says they’re also co-conspirators in bribery. Menendez, they say, went to bat for Melgen with Medicare, on another business matter and on visas for girlfriends. In return, they say Melgen plied Menendez with gifts, vacations and campaign donations.

The prosecution spent six weeks building its case. Now the defense is trying to minimize it. Earlier this week, Judge William Walls chose not to dismiss the main charges against the pair. Wednesday’s witness tried to protect Menendez but may have given up ground on her cross-examination.

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey was in court Wednesday, lending Menendez moral support and a juror was dismissed because his grandfather died. He was replaced by an alternate.