At first glance, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s letter to the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the United States looks like standard fare for a chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“Recent reports that the illicit drug trade and the presence of drug cartels may shift towards the Dominican Republic are of increasing concern to the Committee,” the Miami Republican, then committee chair, wrote Ambassador Aníbal de Castro April 10, 2012.
“I am interested to hear what specific steps your administration is tak[ing] to improve cargo security,” she closed, “and reducing the flow of drugs to the United States and how we can work together towards achieving this goal.”
Someone else was keenly interested, too: Dr. Salomon Melgen, investor in a Dominican Republic port security company, ICSSI, which wants to X-ray cargo at the very ports Ros-Lehtinen was concerned about.
Ros-Lehtinen's letter came a month after Melgen contributed $5,000 to her campaign in a race where she faced token opposition (in 2011, he contributed $4,800). And, a few months before that, Ros-Lehtinen held a benefit for medical research in which Melgen cut another $15,000 check.
Melgen’s West Palm Beach offices were raided last week by federal agents in a Medicare-fraud investigation. FBI agents are also examining his ties with Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ.
Melgen has a reputation, among some political insiders, of being “transactional,” meaning he gives donations but also expects to get something in return. Sources tell The Miami Herald the doctor has asked various members of Congress over the years for help with one of his lawsuits, his port deal, Medicare and a tax issue.
“Drug cartels invade the Dominican Republic,” the headline of the Feb. 7, 2012 story read.
By year’s end, Melgen's publication was openly advocating for X-raying port cargo (Dominican Republic: X-rays in ports crucial to fight drug trafficking). That article didn’t mention Melgen’s conflict of interest. And it quoted a Dominican drug czar without mentioning he was Melgen’s relative (he’s also the dad of Melgen’s cousin who let slip that Menendez’s former aide is slated to run ICSSI).
But early on in 2012, the publication was still laying the groundwork to justify the need for X-raying port cargo.
Ros-Lehtinen’s April letter, while referencing reports of drugs and the Caribbean nation, didn’t specifically mention VOXXI’s article or ICSSI’s port contract.
Ros-Lehtinen’s spokesman, Alex Cruz, wouldn’t say if the letter Ros-Lehtinen wrote was tied to Melgen. But in previous written statement, the congresswoman described her contacts with the eye doctor as limited and said she could only recall “chit chat.” (full statement below)**
Asked why she wrote the letter, Cruz didn’t directly respond.
"The letter regarding the Dominican Republic is not unique,” Cruz responded in a written statement that provided a list of other dates where she or her committee had expressed concerns about drug trafficking throughout the Western Hemisphere.
But Melgen has suggested that Ros-Lehtinen was supportive of his port-security deal.
Last month, as the Dominican magazine La Lupa Sin Trabas was preparing to publish a lengthy investigation about the contract, Melgen responded to interview requests by providing copies of several documents related to the contract, including the letter from Ros-Lehtinen, as well as De Castro’s response.
Melgen’s biggest backer, by far, has been Menendez. In July, at a subcommittee hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee he now chairs, Menendez mentioned the cargo X-ray deal and put pressure on Obama Administration officials to get the Dominican Republic to honor the contract, which has been stalled.
A former Menendez aide, former Miami resident Pedro Pablo Permuy, stands to benefit from the port deal, according to one of Melgen’s cousins.
Menendez said he didn’t know of Permuy’s ties to the company. In a December hearing that he wants to fight the drug trade in the Dominican Republic and throughout the Caribbean islands, according to VOXXI.
“A 2011 United Nations report on homicides worldwide reports that the homicide rate has been increasing every year since 2006 and concludes that the region exhibits some of the highest levels of lethal violence in the world,” Menendez said in the VOXXI article.
Another recipient of Melgen's donations, Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz Balart won't comment at all.
In hindsight, it could resemble a well-orchestrated campaign: Melgen gives Ros-Lehtinen money, Ros-Lehtinen then writes a letter that lends support to his cause, Melgen gives money to a political committee supporting Menendez, Menendez then holds a hearing on the matter, Melgen gives more money to the Menendez-supporting Majority PAC ($700,000 total in a year, $582,500 of which helps Menendez's re-election).
But it could be coincidence as well.
With the recent raid of Melgen’s office, the contract is sure to remain in limbo.
The current Dominican government doesn’t like the way it’s structured. Businessmen there say it’s a giveaway and a monopoly.
In writing back to Ros-Lehtinen last April, Ambassador de Castro outlined everything his country is doing to fight drugs. And he also faulted the U.S. for essentially exporting criminals to his country.
“I cannot fail to mention that one particular issue of concern is the impact of the accelerated flow of persons deported from the United States to the Dominican Republic after committing drug-related crimes, given out limited capabilities to handle their reinsertion into society,” he wrote. “This large contingent of persons often have few or no links to the Dominican Republic and furthermore possess a criminal experience which is intrinsically linked to the United States, where many lived their adult lives.”
**Here’s Ros-Lehtinen’s full statement:
"I met the doctor in DC's Newseum on February 7, 2012 for the launch of Voxxi, a Spanish language media site. We said 'hello' and that was about the extent of the purely social conversation. We probably exchanged business cards because that is what I usually do. He paid to attend a Friday night dinner in March of last year that was attended by many others at Casablanca's Seafood Restaurant on the Miami River for my re-election campaign. I don't recall if we had a conversation but I would guess that it was just normal chit chat in a social setting. He sent a check to aid in the research of a rare medical condition which afflicts the son of my Chief of Staff but he did not attend the luncheon. The funds for this Colombia University research team does not go to this sick baby but rather it is for future patients. Until I saw his picture in the paper, I had no idea what this man looked like nor who he is. I have not traveled on his plane nor have gone with him to any destination in any way, shape or form. I have seen on the FEC reports that he and his wife have contributed to my re-election several times and he has contributed to other Members of Congress, including Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Joe Garcia, Mario Diaz-Balart and Bill Nelson. I went to the Dominican Republic with my father over 20 years ago and have not been back."
-- with Melissa Sanchez