WEST PALM BEACH — Dominican-born physician Salomon Melgen was, on paper, a model citizen. The 63-year old Harvard-educated eye doctor had a booming medical practice and was active in local politics, having been appointed to a state board in 1997 by then-Governor Lawton Chiles.
It all came crashing down with the accusations that Melgen was treating patients for ailments they didn’t actually have, defrauding Medicare out of more than $100 million.
Melgen was convicted in April and has been in custody since, though that hasn’t stopped his lawyers from revisiting the charges and asking for leniency at a sentencing hearing at West Palm Beach’s federal courthouse on Wednesday.
Melgen’s attorney Matthew Menchel told U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra that the prosecution is “trying to argue that none of this was necessary and that’s not true. These patients had very sick eyes, something that has been lost in this case. These patients weren’t coming (to visit Melgen) for the heck of it.”
Menchel and his co-counsel Josh Sheptow maintain that Melgen may have treated patients for illnesses they didn’t have, but that other eye problems of the patients were helped by Melgen’s actions, meaning that the services were in keeping with Medicare’s mandate to help the elderly and should not be considered outright fraud.
It’s an audacious stance to be sure, but perhaps worth a try when considering that Melgen could potentially face a life sentence on 67 different counts if his lawyers are unable to somehow mitigate the charges.
Also wrapped up in this legal web is United States Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who prosecutors have pursued for receiving questionable gifts from Melgen that they contend were really bribes, intended primarily to get Menendez to intercede on the ongoing Medicare investigation.
Congressional Democrats struggling to maintain influence in Washington at the moment are unsettled by the notion of Menendez being brought low by the allegations, as any replacement for the Senator from New Jersey by current governor Chris Christie would surely be from their opposing party.
Melgen faced a different set of concerns, with prosecutors contending that all of his actions were designed to maximize Medicare billing (including even performing tests on the fake eyes of one-eyed patients) and that he put patients at serious risk with unneeded injections.
“There are risks any time someone sticks a needle into an eye,” said prosecutor Carolyn Bell.
Judge Marra, for his part, was unsure whether the danger was actually any greater than a shot in the arm might be.
“It sounds more disgusting,” the judge granted, “but I don’t know if it is any different.”
According to Melgen’s attorneys, the proven loss to Medicare was a mere $64,000, far less than the $136 million figure put forth by the prosecution, and they hope to receive a sentence of time served while awaiting trial.
Whether the dishonest doc receives a short sentence or a long one, it will certainly be a far cry from the life to which he’s become accustomed at his 6,500 square foot North Palm Beach mansion. Crime, it seems, may pay for a time, but sooner or later the ride is apt to come to an end.