Opinion

Their View: It was a bro-mance, not corruption

Sen. Robert Menendez says he’s angry because federal prosecutors “don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption.”

The New Jersey Democrat is upset about being indicted on fraud and bribery charges for allegedly using his political clout to benefit his longtime pal, Dr. Salomon Melgen, of West Palm Beach, Fla.

Melgen was also charged in the bribery case, and has separately been indicted for epic Medicare fraud. Like Menendez, Melgen says he has committed no crimes.

Except for the super-sized favors they did for each other, the friendship between the powerful U.S. senator and the multimillionaire eye surgeon really isn’t so different from any ordinary bro-romance.

If your best buddy needed a few bucks, you’d be there for him, right?

When Menendez last ran for re-election, Melgen donated $700,000 to a political action committee that gave $582,000 to the senator’s campaign — a heartfelt gesture with absolutely no strings attached, according to the doctor and the senator.

And when the government forced Melgen to return almost $9 million that he’d overbilled Medicare for eye procedures, it was nothing but personal devotion that motivated Menendez to start sending emails and making calls, trying to get the money back for his favorite ophthalmologist.

Hey, what are friends for?

Melgen often used his private jet to take Menendez on gilded getaways to the Dominican Republic. You’d do the same for your best friend, if you had a private jet.

And you could easily afford one, if you were the doctor who raked in more Medicare payments than any other doctor in the United States.

The government says that, between 2008 and 2013, Melgen and his South Florida clinics collected more than $105 million from fraudulent claims for eye injections, laser surgery and other treatments.

In 2012 alone, Melgen received almost $21 million in Medicare reimbursements, which works out to almost $12,000 for every eyeball touched by him or his staff. That year he filed claims for 894 patients undergoing approximately 92,000 procedures.

What a busy beaver! Yet still he found time for companionship with the senator from New Jersey.

And Menendez was obviously appreciative.

According to prosecutors, he intervened on three occasions to obtain visas for college-age girlfriends of Dr. Melgen, who is married. The women — from Brazil, the Ukraine and Dominican Republic — were described as a model, a model/actress or (in one case) a model/actress/lawyer.

Menendez wasted no time smoothing out the women’s visa problems so they could join Melgen in the United States.

Hey, what are friends for?

You’d do the same thing, if you could snap your fingers and shake up an embassy. It helps to be on the Foreign Relations Committee.

According to prosecutors, Menendez met all three women. He and Melgen allegedly dined with the Ukrainian model at the Mandarin Hotel in Miami shortly after she’d received her visa.

How many senators would take time out from their hectic schedule to personally welcome a new arrival to the United States? That’s pure Bob Menendez.

Melgen was no less of a true-blue bud to the senator.

The indictment describes the time in 2010 when Menendez wanted to spend three nights in a swanky hotel suite in Paris. He was particularly excited about the limestone bath, exotic rain shower and soaking tub.

Upon realizing how expensive the room would be, Menendez emailed Melgen asking him to pay for it with the doctor’s credit-card points: “You call American Express Rewards and they will book it for you. It would need to be in my name.”

Hey, what are friends for?

Caribbean vacations, private jets, Parisian nights — don’t think of this as a corrupt relationship between a sleazy politician and a rich donor. Think of it as two wild and crazy guys being generous to each other.

When a firm owned by Melgen had trouble with a contract for cargo screening at a Dominican port, the eye doctor called on his pal in the U.S. Senate to stir up some diplomatic heat.

On May 16, 2012, Menendez met with an assistant secretary of state to discuss Melgen’s business problem. That same day, prosecutors say, Melgen gave $40,000 to the New Jersey Democratic State Committee Victory Federal Account, and another $20,000 directly to Menendez’s legal defense fund.

Hey, what are friends for?

Unfortunately for the senator, that 20 grand for legal fees is just a drop in the bucket.

Or, in his case, the soaking tub.

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