In the N.J. Senate battle over drug pricing? Bob Menendez is unarmed.

By Matt Rooney
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)

Bob Menendez may be on record as ‘saddened’ by the lengthy prison term facing his long-time friend and donor Salomon Melgen, Save Jerseyans, but should anyone be? More to the point: where does Menendez of all people get off accusing someone else of unethical behavior? In light of not just the company he keeps but his own behavior?

And why do drug costs figure so prominently in this year’s N.J. Senate battle?

A little background for those who are new to this story line: the senior U.S. Senator from New Jersey and veteran Democrat politician lashed out at his likely fall opponent on Friday (an attempt to divert attention from his own recent formal admonition for unethical behavior by the bipartisan Senate ethics committee) over the pricing of cancer drugs produced by Bob Hugin’s former company, Celgene, during the Republican candidate’s tenure as CEO.

Hugin’s old company, which he left shortly before joining the race, produces an array of leading-edge medicines including Revlimid (known for treating rare blood cancers) and Pomalyst (others including mantle cell lymphoma). Celgene says its high prices are necessary to continue clinical trials for dozens of other potentially life-saving drugs. Critics say that’s only part of the story and therefore a convenient excuse to increase profit margins. The cost of prescription drugs, who’s to blame, and what to do about them is now and will remain one of the more controversial topics in all of American politics.

What isn’t controversial? Or at least much less controversial?

Bob Menendez’s highly-publicized and officially condemned ethics issues.

“I am not resigning,” Menendez reportedly told journalists at an Edison event. “If anything, Bob Hugin should search his conscience about what he did to cancer patients under his leadership at Celgene.”

That’s cute. Ballsy, too, given Menendez’s track record when it comes to protecting consumers.

Remember: while Menendez is swatting at Hugin over the complexities of drug costs, a small army of elderly patients are still reeling from Dr. Melgen’s now notorious Medicare fraudulent practices which reportedly “involved convincing elderly patients on Medicare to undergo macular degeneration treatments that were not medically necessary, prescribing overpriced drugs, and falsifying records. Medicare paid for all services to these patients, resulting in millions of dollars in profit to Melgen. In 2012 alone, he received $21 million from Medicare, the highest of any doctor in the country.” [Emphasis added.]

Melgen, an eye doctor based in Florida, hauled in $177 million over the course of many years, and now he’ll serve a 17 year sentence for his objectively evil crimes.

Where did the money go? Apparently fine living, big vacations, and $1 million in donations to… Bob Menendez, leaving little to nothing left in the kitty to compensate Melgen’s many victims. Menendez famously received gifts including plane rides and hotel stays, too, and as a token of his affection for Melgen, Menendez leveraged his office as a federal legislator and “[i]ntervened in a matter where the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) found that Dr. Melgen had overbilled Medicare by more than $8.9 million. This intervention included persistent advocacy before multiple senior CMS officials over the course of three years, reaching, at its height, your meeting with the Secretary of Health and Human Services.”

That quote comes directly from the April 26, 2018 letter “severely” admonishing Menendez for acts including failing to disclose gifts from Melgen as required by Senate rules. That letter was signed by Republican AND Democrat colleagues.

Bob Hugin

“If Menendez really had a moral compass, he wouldn’t have abused his power to try and short circuit a federal investigation into Dr. Melgen’s Medicare fraud scheme,” said Hugin on Friday, responding to Menendez. “A criminal scheme that saw him steal tens of millions of dollars by splitting single dose vials of expensive eye drugs and performing unnecessary operations that left patients blind, and then using the ill-gotten gains to lavish Menendez with expensive gifts and trips that the Senator tried to hide from view.”

Bob Hugin doesn’t stand accused of violating any criminal or ethical cannons.

Bob Menendez isn’t wearing orange today thanks only to a mistrial after a jury of his peers failed to convict him (or exonerate him with a “not guilty” verdict). Menendez’s behavior permitted Salomon to operate his scams, and Menendez directly benefited from Melgen’s ill-gotten gains.

Menendez doesn’t have a “moral compass” as Hugin implies. He’ll spend the next several months of the 2018 campaign cycle pretending to be outraged by Bob Hugin’s career in the pharmaceutical industry; you and I know that Menendez’s only real beef with Hugin, besides the whole challenging his reelection thing, is the fact that Menendez could only shake $58,000 out of Celgene’s PAC, a paltry haul in light of what he was able to fetch as Salomon Melgen’s man on the inside.

To get a guy like Menendez on your side? It takes a lot more cash than most taxpayers (or elderly Medicare patients) could ever hope to afford. That’s the ultimate lesson of this morality tale.

Pricing drugs is complicated. Naked greed and gangster-like behavior of the kind practiced by Bob Menendez? The sort which would make Tony Soprano blush? Much less so.