Menendez trial: Witness describes ‘angry’ phone call

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

There was some riveting testimony Monday at the federal corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez from a witness who testified the senator flashed a nasty temper over an issue affecting his longtime friend, Dr. Salomon Melgen. Prosecutors have spent weeks in the trial trying to connect the dots in a circumstantial case using emails and receipts to show the jury Melgen allegedly made more than $700,000 in gifts and contributions to the senator’s campaign over several years, and that Menendez would allegedly repay his friend with favors.

Prosecutors called a witness named Jonathan Blum, a former coordinator at CMS, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Blum testified that Menendez got very pushy over a Medicare payment policy that directly involved Melgen, who had been charged with overbilling Medicare $8.9 million for a special eye medicine called Lucentis. Melgen would treat three patients with one, single-use vial of Lucentis and then charge Medicare for three vials.

Blum testified that he and Menendez tangled twice over this. The first time, in a 2009 phone call, Blum said he tried to explain to Menendez that “… the agency never pays twice for the same drug … He [Menendez] wasn’t happy with the response,” Blum stated. “He pressed back quite forcefully … saying it conflicted with other documents published by the agency.”

Blum said Menendez never specifically asked for anything, and he doesn’t recall his mentioning Dr. Melgen by name. But Blum characterized Menendez’s tone as “aggressive” and “angry.” Blum explained a physician has a right to appeal, but said Menendez snapped back at him, “Don’t tell me what the appeal rights are! The call was ended quite quickly, very angrily,” remembered Blum, “I believe he hung up on me.”

CMS did not change its payment policies. Blum also detailed a tense, conflict-filled meeting with Menendez over the same issue, in then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office. He said Reid specifically mentioned Melgen’s case, but Menendez did not. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was also present and said she had no authority to appeal the case. Again, no policy changes came out of the meeting. But Blum testified that Menendez promised he would not let the issue rest and would push for change in the Senate Finance Committee.

On cross-examination, the defense tried to show Menendez was upset by conflicting answers from CMS. Instead of calling him hostile, Melgen attorney Kirk Ogrosky asked, “Wouldn’t it be more fair to say, it was frustrating?” Blum replied, “I think both of us were frustrated, would be a fair assessment.”

The trial began Sept. 6 and prosecutors have a ways to go before the defense gets to present evidence.

Testimony resumes Tuesday.