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Fla. doctor's Dem ties spur FBI to inquiry

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 10:06 p.m.
Dr. Salomon Melgen has been very active in politics, with his practice donating $700,000 to a super PAC that heavily supported Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. The Miami Herald

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 last 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 last week that 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, D-Calif., 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 United States since at least 1980, holding medical posts across the country while building a reputation as a top ophthalmologist. He has a wife and two children.

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 family have given tens of thousands more to other political causes, including directly to Menendez.

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-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 labeled personal.

Whether Melgen's access or checkbook brought him any influence is unclear.

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 in which 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.

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