WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A prominent Florida eye doctor accused of political corruption was found guilty Friday on all counts in his Medicare fraud trial, raising the possibility that federal prosecutors could pressure him to testify against New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Dr. Salomon Melgen effectively faces a life sentence if no deal is struck. Menendez denies any wrongdoing.
The 62-year-old doctor and Menendez face a joint trial this fall in New Jersey on charges the doctor bribed the senator to get help on a variety of issues.
In the current case, 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 had 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.
In 2012, Melgen received more Medicare reimbursement than any other doctor in the country, nearly $21 million.
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 Melgen with a business dispute he had with the Dominican government.