WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Dr. Salomon Melgen was called a miracle worker for his skill restoring sight and a power broker for the deep pockets that brought politicians to his side.

Now he's fighting another label — criminal — after being charged with corruption for allegedly pumping nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign cash to New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez in exchange for favors.

A look at the Florida ophthalmologist who faces federal charges alongside his friend Menendez:

(L-R)Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Dr. Salomon Melgen (Mendendez: AP Photo/Mel Evans. Melgen: AP Photo/The Miami Herald, Hector Gabino)

SKILLED SURGEON

Melgen, 60, graduated from medical school in his native Dominican Republic in 1978 and has lived in the U.S. since at least 1980, holding posts across the country while building a reputation as a top eye surgeon. He was licensed in Florida in 1987, state records show, and his acumen drew patients including "presidents, governors, politicians, celebrities and actors," the website for his four-office practice boasted before being taken down Thursday. Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles chose Melgen for surgery in 1997, an introduction the doctor's assistant at the time pointed to as the origin of his political involvement.

POLITICAL BENEFACTOR

After treating Chiles, Melgen became a reliable donor to Democratic power brokers and a frequent host of fundraisers, both at his 6,500-square-foot waterfront home near North Palm Beach and his house in the exclusive Dominican Republic resort community of Casa de Campo. Melgen seemed to bask in the attention among lavish buffets, booming bands and dancing guests. A 2012 photo shows him beaming, sandwiched between Menendez and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. In 2012 alone, Melgen's eye-clinic company gave $700,000 to Majority PAC, a political action committee that aided Democratic candidates for the Senate nationwide. Separately, the doctor, along with his wife and daughter, gave more than $350,000 in individual contributions to various candidates and committees between 1998 and 2012, according to records at the Center for Responsive Politics.

WEALTH AND QUESTIONS

Melgen's status as a sought-after surgeon led to his earning more money from Medicare in 2012 than any other doctor — nearly $21 million that year, federal records show. But questions arose about his use of the costly drug Lucentis to treat macular degeneration. As the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services investigated millions of dollars in allegedly improper billings, federal agents swarmed Melgen's office in a late-night 2013 raid, carting away boxes of records. Melgen's attorney, Annie Lyons, said this week that the doctor "has a highly defensible case" in the matter. The indictment unsealed Wednesday focuses squarely on alleged corruption linked with Menendez, not charges of health care fraud. Federal health authorities continue their investigation in the case.

SENATE SIDEKICK

Melgen and Menendez have been friends for decades. The senator said they celebrated holidays and weddings together, mourned together at funerals and exchanged gifts on birthdays. The indictment against the men claims Menendez intervened on his friend's behalf to gain visas for Melgen's foreign girlfriends, press Dominican officials to honor a lucrative port contract for one of the doctor's businesses and influence CMS officials on the billing dispute. In exchange, authorities say, Melgen showered the senator with flights, vacations and contributions. Both Melgen and Menendez pleaded not guilty Thursday, and their friendship may be put to a test as legal experts say prosecutors likely will attempt to get the doctor to testify against the senator. Even if the two seem inseparable, Nova Southeastern University law professor Robert Jarvis said such a flip is possible: "The Mafia has learned that lesson time and again."

 

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