WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A prominent Florida eye doctor accused of political corruption was convicted of Medicare fraud Friday, increasing the odds that federal prosecutors could pressure him to testify against New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez.
Dr. Salomon Melgen was found guilty on all 67 counts and could spend the rest of his life in prison if he doesn’t strike a deal before his sentencing, scheduled for July 14. Menendez denies any wrongdoing.
The 62-year-old doctor collected more money from Medicaid than any other physician in the nation — $21 million — at the height of the fraud in 2012.
He faces trial with Menendez this fall in New Jersey on charges the doctor bribed the senator for a variety of favors, including intervention in the fraud probe.
Prosecutors convinced jurors that the doctor stole up to $105 million from the federal medical insurance program between 2008 and 2013 by performing unneeded tests and treatments on his mostly elderly patients.
Melgen’s attorneys argued that the Dominican-born, Harvard-trained doctor was a kind and caring physician. They acknowledged that he made billing and treatment mistakes, exposing him to potential lawsuits and possibly losing his medical license. But they said they were unintentional, and therefore not a crime.
Prosecutors countered that anybody can make an occasional mistake, but Melgren’s actions were too numerous to be honest. For example, the doctor frequently billed Medicare for tests and treatment of prosthetic eyes.
Prosecutors also pointed to tests run in seconds that were supposed to take five minutes or more. That made the tests unusable for diagnosis, but enabled him to bill Medicare up to several hundred dollars each for as many as 100 patients a day.
He pocketed millions more by splitting single-use vials of an expensive eye drug into four doses and billing the government for each one, they said.
Melgen became politically active in 1997, when he treated Florida Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, who appointed him to a state board.
He was soon hosting Democratic fundraisers at his 6,500-square-foot (605-square-meter) North Palm Beach home. That led to his friendship with Menendez, during which Melgen paid for trips he and the senator took to France and to the doctor’s home at a Dominican resort.
Menendez reimbursed Melgen $58,500 after the trips became public knowledge.
Federal prosecutors in New Jersey say Melgen’s gifts to Menendez were actually bribes. In return, they say, the senator obtained visas for the married Melgen’s foreign mistresses, interceded with Medicare officials when they began investigating Melgen’s practice, and pressured the State Department to help with a business dispute Melgen had with the Dominican government.
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