Not sure why Trump sprung Medicare conman from prison, but it wasn’t because he’s a nice guy | Opinion

Carl Hiaasen
·4 min read

While many of Donald Trump’s late-hour pardons and clemency orders benefited Republican cronies and crooks, one major scammer is getting sprung from prison early despite his longstanding bro-mance with a prominent Democratic senator.

In an unexpected move, Trump commuted the sentence of Salomon Melgen, a South Florida ophthalmologist who was serving a 17-year term for stealing $73 million from Medicare.

One of the most prolific fraudsters in the history of that program, Melgen happens to be good buddies with Sen. Robert Menendez, who has been no friend of Trump.

But it was the Justice Department under President Obama that prosecuted the New Jersey Democrat and Melgen in a bribery case based on the extravagant favors that the two men did for each other while the senator was trying to smooth out the doctor’s Medicare problems.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars donated by Melgen ended up in Menendez’s campaign coffers. He also took Menendez on his private jet to vacation in the Dominican Republic, where golf and other manly fun transpired.

The senator was such a devoted pal that, according to prosecutors, he helped obtain visas for three college-age girlfriends of Melgen, who was married. Menendez somehow made time in his busy schedule to personally meet all those women. What a stand-up guy!

In a Trump-like moment after he was indicted, the senator groused that the government didn’t “know the difference between friendship and corruption.”

The trial ended in a hung jury, and the bribery case was later dropped. Unfortunately for Melgen, the Medicare prosecution didn’t go away.

The West Palm Beach eye doctor had been making a fortune at his clinics by massively overbilling for injections of Lucentis, a medication that treats macular degeneration. Medicare got wise and ordered Melgen to return $8.9 million that he’d billed for injections in 2007 and 2008.

His bro in the Senate, Menendez, emailed and made phone calls on the doctor’s behalf, but the feds wouldn’t back down.

A Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that from 2012 through 2015, Melgen collected more than $45 million from Medicare. His most lucrative year was 2012, when he banked nearly $21 million in reimbursements for allegedly performing about 92,000 procedures on 894 patients.

The math works out to roughly $11,700 for every eyeball treated by Melgen or his staff. In court, witnesses said he falsified records, performed unnecessary surgeries and, in three cases, billed Medicare for useless procedures on prosthetic eyes.

The doctor insisted then — and still does — that he did nothing illegal or unethical. Three years ago, a federal jury convicted him on 67 counts. He was sentenced to 17 years, ordered to pay $53 million in restitution and gave up his Florida medical license.

It’s not clear how much of that money — if any — has been repaid. Now 66, Melgen was in a Miami prison last week when he got the good news about the clemency order.

Melgen thanked Trump for “recognizing the injustice.” He said he’ll fight to help “wrongly incarcerated” people and go home to care for his wife, who is ill.

The official White House explanation of Trump’s decision said Melgen’s patients and friends “testify to his generosity in treating all patients, especially those unable to pay or afford healthcare insurance.”

It’s real easy to be generous to patients when you’re sending the bills to Uncle Sam.

Menendez put out a statement acknowledging he’d spoken with someone at the White House about the commutation of his pal’s prison sentence, but “had no expectation” that Trump would actually do it.

Melgen also got support from one GOP lawmaker, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, of Miami, and from members of Brigade 2506, veterans of the United States’ failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. The Brigade 2506 letter absurdly claimed that Melgen’s trial was political revenge for his friendship with Menendez and other Cuban-American leaders who oppose normalizing relations with Havana.

In reality, the doctor was prosecuted for one simple reason: He was a thief who ripped off taxpayers year after year. The evidence against him was mountainous.

Because Trump never acts out of the sheer shining goodness of his heart, the Melgen clemency order raises the obvious questions of why, and what’s in it for the ex-president.

Maybe he’s trying to sway Menendez’s vote in the upcoming impeachment trial, or maybe he’s taking a swipe at Obama’s Justice Department, or maybe he’s simply looking to line up a free ophthalmology consult, in case he accidentally sprays bronzer in his eyes.

We might never find out what really motivated Trump to free a jailed friend of a Democratic foe, but it almost certainly wasn’t compassion.