Updated at: 02/02/2013 3:37 PM
By MATT SEDENSKY
(AP) WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - To some, Dr. Salomon Melgen was a miracle worker who brought sight to the blind. To others, he was a smooth political player known for rubbing elbows and jet-setting.
Whichever version of Melgen roused the interest of the FBI, which raided his offices this week, their investigation has illuminated the surgeon’s ability to build ties to a host of Democratic lawmakers.
Foremost among them is Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, whose friendship with Melgen has yielded fundraisers, campaign contributions and trips on a private plane. Menendez said this week he did nothing wrong, and flatly denied allegations reported by The Daily Caller, a conservative website, that he traveled on Melgen’s plane to the Dominican Republic for sex with prostitutes.
Though facts remain piecemeal, a fuller portrait of Melgen has emerged. There are photos of the beaming doctor sandwiched between Menendez and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a trail of checks written to politicians and a web of business interests that apparently fueled his wealth.
Melgen, 58, is a native of the Dominican Republic who has lived in the U.S. since at least 1980, holding medical posts around the country while building a reputation as a top ophthalmologist. He has a wife and two children.
Calls to his home and office were not answered, but his attorney has said he did nothing wrong.
On the website for his Vitreo-Retinal Consultants Eye Center practice, he is called a pioneer and an innovator, a front-runner in treatment of macular degeneration, a common eye disorder. He has treated "presidents, governors, politicians, celebrities and actors," according to his website.
Patricia Goodman, his office manager and personal assistant for a decade until cancer forced her to quit in 1999, remembers an endless stream of patients coming from all over the world for his care.
"He was just the best surgeon," she said, "and we had people that would come in that were blind and told they would never see again and he brought back their sight."
When Goodman was suffering through cancer, her paychecks never stopped, nor did Melgen’s concern. He would often provide his services for free to people who could not afford it.
She’s reluctant to say anything negative about him, except to say he was a "ladies man" and liked "living on the edge." She refused to elaborate.
As Goodman remembers it, a single big-name introduction appeared to fuel Melgen’s entrance into the world of politics. Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida, a Democrat, went to Melgen for eye surgery in 1997 and later tapped the doctor for a state panel on HMOs. Not long afterward, he became a reliable donor to Democratic power brokers and a frequent host of fundraisers at both his waterfront, 6,500-square-foot home near North Palm Beach and his house in the Dominican Republic in the exclusive residential resort community of Casa de Campo.
Goodman coordinated logistics for the fundraisers _ buffets, bands and a huge patio where revelers could dance. She remembers events with former Sens. Christopher Dodd and Bob Graham and former Dominican President Leonel Fernandez. Melgen basked in the newfound attention.
"He loved the limelight, he loved it," Goodman said. "He loved being with the politicians."
Last year, Melgen’s practice gave $700,000 to Majority PAC, a super political action committee set up to fund Democratic candidates for Senate. Aided by Melgen’s donation, the super PAC became the largest outside political committee contributing to Menendez’s re-election, spending more than $582,000 on the senator’s behalf, according to an analysis of federal election records.
Melgen and his immediate family have given tens of thousands more to other political causes, including directly to Menendez.
Even as Melgen cultivated a political profile in the U.S., he was never gone long from his homeland.
Fernandez, the ex-Dominican president, named him as an alternate delegate to the United Nations during his first term and an ambassador assigned to the Foreign Ministry in his second.
Meanwhile, a private plane owned by Melgen’s company, DRM Med Assist LLC, made more than 100 trips to the Dominican Republic since July 2009, an Associated Press review of flight records found. Nearly a dozen of those trips showed brief stopovers at Washington, D.C.-area airports, although it’s unclear who was on board because Federal Aviation Administration rules don’t require private aircraft to file flight manifests.
Menendez repaid Melgen $58,500 for two 2010 trips he characterized as personal. The reimbursement was made Jan. 4 in response to the ethics complaint, but there was no public disclosure of it until this week. The reimbursement is significant for a politician who’s not wealthy by Washington standards. Disclosure forms show Menendez’s net worth as less than $700,000.
Whether Melgen’s access or checkbook brought him any influence remains unclear.
In 2007, Menendez introduced a Senate bill, "The Glaucoma Screening Act," that proposed $10 million in grants to firms that would have in part expanded eligibility to Hispanics who are at risk of glaucoma. Melgen’s clinic was not specifically cited in the bill and whether he would have benefited is not clear.
Menendez’s spokeswoman Tricia Enright noted he had a long history of working with the Friends of the Congressional Glaucoma Caucus, whose leader asked the senator’s staff to introduce the bill. Regardless, the legislation never made it out of committee.
The senator appeared to have weighed in on behalf of one of Melgen’s companies last July during a Senate hearing, complaining about several instances where Latin American governments did not honor obligations with businesses. Menendez pressed two Obama administration officials about an unidentified company that provided cargo screening services at Dominican Republic ports.
Media reports in the Dominican Republic have highlighted a contract feud between the country’s government and a port security firm, I.C.S.S.I.
The company was hired to provide X-ray screening at Dominican ports starting in 2002, according to a 2003 document reviewed by the AP. In recent years, the Dominican government had begun to balk at continuing the contract, citing concerns about high costs.
In 2011, I.C.S.S.I. was bought by a Florida firm, Border Security Services LLC, which records show is managed by Melgen. The New York Times reported Friday the port contract could be worth as much as $50 million a year.
More details inevitably will spill out as both Melgen and Menendez become tangled in an investigation. The Senate Ethics Committee is looking into whether Menendez accepted inappropriate gifts from Melgen and FBI agents carted away evidence seized from Melgen’s offices, but refused to say why.
"The government has not informed Dr. Melgen what concerns it may have," said his attorney, Lawrence Duffy. "We are confident that Dr. Melgen has acted appropriately at all times."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jack Gillum, Stephen Braun and Henry Jackson in Washington; Curt Anderson in Miami; and Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Contact the Washington investigative team at DCinvestigations (at) ap.org.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)