Then-HHS official described "hostile" phone call with Sen. Bob Menendez
A phone call with Menendez and then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was also tense
"I found that I was being put on the defensive and it was a very angry exchange."
A former Obama administration official described Sen. Bob Menendez as having an “aggressive” and “hostile” tone during a phone call and subsequent meeting that included then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in federal court Monday.
Jonathan Blum, former principal deputy administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was the latest witness to take the stand in the corruption case against the Democratic senator from New Jersey.
The senator allegedly accepted lavish flights and vacations from his friend, ophthalmologist Dr. Salomon Melgen, in exchange for advocating for the doctor’s interests to various federal officials. Both men deny all allegations of wrongdoing.
Included in the charges is the allegation that Menendez worked to resolve an $8.9 million overbilling dispute between Melgen and CMS in Melgen’s favor. Blum testified that in a 2009 phone call, Menendez “pressed” Blum, then one of the most senior officials within the agency, to change the policy at the heart of the dispute to “relieve or forgive or lessen” Melgen’s overpayment.
But while the call began cordially, things devolved as Blum maintained the agency’s position in the case was correct, and Menendez’s tone grew “hostile,” Blum said, saying the call ended when Menendez hung up the phone.
An “angry” meeting
Three years later in 2012, Blum said that he was asked to accompany Sebelius to a meeting arranged by Reid, D-Nevada, to further address the still-unresolved matter. Blum testified that once again, he held firm in his position that the agency was correct in its assessment. That meeting went similarly to the 2009 phone call, Blum said.
“I found the tone to be very angry, very hostile,” Blum said of Menendez in the meeting. “I found that I was being put on the defensive and it was a very angry exchange.”
Blum said that as the meeting ended, Menendez told Sebelius he would continue to “press the issue going forward” through his role on the Senate Finance Committee. That committee has partial jurisdiction over HHS.
Defense attorney Kirk Ogrosky was in the midst of his cross-examination when court concluded for the day. His focus had been on the complexities of the Medicare policies at the heart of the issue. That questioning was met with frequent objections by the Justice Department, claiming it was beyond the scope of the case.
Eventually, Judge William Walls dismissed court early to remind counsel that the case was not about the Medicare overbilling issue, saying that was for “another case, another jury, another judge.”
The day began with FBI Special Agent Alan Mohl resuming his testimony about campaign donations made by Melgen to various Menendez-affiliated New Jersey political funds. He testified that on the same day Menendez met with a State Department official to discuss port security and, in part, a contract owned by Melgen in the Dominican Republic for a cargo screening, Melgen donated $60,000 total – split between two funds.
Defense attorneys in response to that testimony attempted to show that prosecutors were cherry-picking donations to feature, describing a history of Melgen donations to Menendez causes for years before the alleged conspiracy in this case began.