Menendez trial focuses on intervention into Melgen Medicare case

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

A high profile witness headlined the federal corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez on Wednesday. Government prosecutors called retired U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa to the stand to describe a meeting he had with Menendez and the senator’s friend and co-defendant, Dr. Salomon Melgen.

The focus of Wednesday’s trial was on medicare overbilling. Melgen, who is on trial with Menendez, is a Florida eye doctor.

Medicare said Melgen overbilled them in 2007 and 2008 by $8.9 million. A retina specialist, Melgen injected Lucentis into patients with macular degeneration. The FDA requires one vial per injection, to lower the risk of infection. Melgen used one vial on three or four patients and billed Medicare separately for each one. Each vial cost $2,000.

When Medicare demanded some money back, Melgen turned to his friend Menendez. Menendez asked for a meeting with Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health Committee. He got one in Harkin’s office and brought Melgen with him.

Federal Prosecutor J.P. Cooney asked Harkin, “What was your takeaway from the meeting?”

Harkin said, “I remember two things. One was why would the FDA let so much extra medicine in a bottle go to waste? … And, two, if he’s treating three people and only paying for one vial, that doesn’t seem right, either.”

On cross examination Defense Attorney Abbe Lowell asked Harkin, “Sen. Menendez didn’t ask you to do anything but take the meeting, did he?”

“No,” replied Harkin.

“And Dr. Melgen didn’t ask you to do anything, did he?” probed Lowell.

“Not that I recall,” replied Harkin.

Lowell argued that Menendez was interested in the policy at FDA regarding multi-use vials of medicine. He tried to introduce evidence that another retinal drug, Avastin, is allowed to be administered in multiple doses.

The prosecution says Menendez was running interference in Washington for a friend in return for lavish gifts and campaign contributions, i.e. bribes.

A doctor who used to work for Medicare, Dr. Louis Jacques, recalled a conference call that included two Menendez staffers who pressed for a reversal on Melgen’s case.

“[The Menendez staffer said] The issue is very important to the senator …,” said one doctor. “Dr. Melgen and Sen. Menendez are close personal friends.”

“Bad medicine is not illegal. Medicare should pay the claims …,” she said, according to Jacques.

He said at that he had to briefly leave the room in disgust. Harkin, by the way, shook Menendez’s hand on the way out of the courtroom. The trial is expected to run into November.