March 15, 2013 10:45:27 AM
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Robert Menendez is being investigated by a Miami federal grand jury for his role in advocating for the business interests of a wealthy donor and friend, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
A story on the newspaper's website said that as part of the probe federal agents have questioned witnesses about the interactions between Menendez, D-N.J., and Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. The newspaper said the grand jury also issued subpoenas for Melgen's business and financial records. The newspaper cited unidentified people it said were familiar with the probe.
Federal agents have not contacted Menendez, one person told the newspaper.
The Post said Melgen declined to say Thursday whether he knew anything about the investigation, but he said any probe would find no wrongdoing.
Melgen attorney Kirk Ogrosky said the eye doctor is proud of his relationship with the senator and had no worries about any federal investigation.
Menendez and Melgen's overlapping interests have repeatedly raised questions in recent months. Menendez was compelled to reimburse $58,000 for two flights to the Dominican Republic aboard Melgen's private jet for personal trips in 2010 that he previously had failed to report, prompting scrutiny by the Senate Ethics Committee.
Menendez also has acknowledged contacting U.S. health agencies to question their billing practices and policies amid a dispute between Melgen and federal authorities. And Menendez was a key sponsor of a natural gas bill that could have aided a Melgen investment in a Florida company that markets a conversion system for natural gas truck engines.
Melgen has given more than $14,000 directly to Menendez's political campaigns since the late 1990s and, through his eye clinic, donated $700,000 last year to a "super" political committee that supported Democratic Senate candidates. The committee, in turn, spent $582,000 to back Menendez's re-election effort.
The investigation began with two disparate issues, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke with the Post. First, auditors had been reviewing allegations that Melgen was fraudulently overbilling Medicare for treating his patients. Melgen's attorney has said the doctor's billing was completely appropriate.
Then, in the fall, the FBI began looking into an anonymous tipster's allegations that Melgen had arranged prostitutes for Menendez in the Dominican Republic. Such an arrangement could constitute providing a favor or gift under the bribery statute that investigators have been reviewing, the Post said.
Lawyers for Menendez and Melgen have said the allegations involving prostitutes, which also were made by the conservative website the Daily Caller, were absurd. Menendez has said the allegations, which first surfaced during his re-election campaign last year, were part of a Republican smear campaign.