Former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin testified Wednesday as a prosecution witness against his old colleague, Robert Menendez, describing a meeting prosecutors call corrupt, but he termed a “courtesy” among lawmakers.
Menendez, D-N.J., is on trial for bribery, accused of taking gifts from the donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, of trips on a private jet, a stay at a Paris hotel, and campaign donations.
In exchange, prosecutors charge, Menendez sought to help the doctor on several fronts, from getting visas for the doctor’s girlfriends to trying to resolve a multimillion dollar billing dispute with the U.S. government.
Menendez and Melgen say they are longtime friends who enjoyed spending time together, and they were motivated by that friendship, not corruption.
On the witness stand, Harkin recalled a 2011 meeting he had with the two men in which the doctor pressed him for help in an $8.9 million dispute between Melgen and Medicare.
Much of Harkin’s testimony seemed to undercut a central premise of the government’s case against Menendez – the favors he did for Melgen were proof of criminal corruption, not the regular give-and-take of politics.
Harkin said he took the meeting “as a senatorial courtesy” to Menendez. On cross examination, Harkin said it “was quite common” for Senate colleagues to ask for meetings about health-care issues.
“If a senator asks you to meet with someone, you usually meet with them,” the 78-year-old Harkin said during his 30 minutes on the stand.
At the time of the meeting, which took place at Harkin’s Senate office, the Iowa Democrat was chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Harkin said Melgen did most of the talking during the meeting centered on Melgen’s practice of getting multiple doses of the eye medication Lucentis from a vial that was designed to have just one dose.
Melgen had billed Medicare for each dose, tripling and sometimes quadrupling his reimbursement from the program.
“I had been briefed on this before (the meeting),” Harkin said. “I just basically listened . . . I don’t remember his asking me to do anything.”
During his testimony, Harkin jokingly referred to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, commonly known as CMS, as “C-Mess.”
Harkin said Melgen made a compelling argument about the waste involved in only allowing for a single dose of medicine to be extracted from a vial that holds multiple doses. Harkin added the billing aspect of the situation troubled him.
“He’s treating three people and only paying for one vial,” Harkin said. “That doesn’t sound right to me, either.”
The defense attempted to show Menendez sought the meeting with Harkin to discuss a health-care policy that affected doctors other than just Melgen.
Harkin said he didn’t meet again with Menendez or Melgen to discuss the issue.
The former senator’s testimony underscores a key challenge for the Justice Department in the case: Some of the key prosecution witnesses have described their interactions with the defendants in fairly innocuous terms, even though the Justice Department has argued those acts add up to a years-long corruption scheme between the two men.
On his way out of the courtroom on Wednesday, Harkin stopped to give Menendez a firm handshake.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Alan Maimon, Devlin Barrett