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South Florida donor pal of Sen. Menendez was 'national treasure' in the DR before FBI raid

SANTO DOMINGO -- Dr. Salomon Melgen arrives at galas here in a blue Mercedes-Benz, his four bodyguards in tow.

He rarely goes unnoticed. The stout 58-year-old ophthalmologist is a regular on the society pages, where he is almost always pictured with important politicians. Late last year he made national headlines for performing free eye surgery on a 28-year-old woman who had been shot in the face.

“He’s a national treasure,” said Eduardo Gamarra, an international relations professor at Florida International University who has polled extensively in the Dominican Republic. “He has the reputation of a miracle worker.”

But Melgen’s carefully crafted public image began to unravel this week, when federal investigators raided his West Palm Beach eye clinic as part of a probe into potential Medicare fraud. Separately, The Miami Herald confirmed the existence of a federal corruption investigation involving his ties to U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Family members in the Dominican Republic defended the doctor on Friday, characterizing the allegations as an orchestrated effort by his political opponents to destroy his reputation.

“Everybody in this country loves him,” said his cousin, Vinicio Castillo Semán, a member of a powerful family in the Dominican Republic. “He lives his life helping people, returning their sight to them, as he did for Jose Jose,” a famous Mexican performer.

Among eye patients he has treated: former Dominican presidents Joaquín Balaguer and Juan Bosch.

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