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Senator pushed contract for friend

FBI agents carried boxes from this week’s raid on the offices of Dr. Salomon E. Melgen.

J PAT CARTER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

FBI agents carried boxes from this week’s raid on the offices of Dr. Salomon E. Melgen.

NEW YORK — Dr. Salomon E. Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye surgeon, has always been happy to help out his friend, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

He rushed to the senator’s side when Menendez’s mother died, flew him around the country on his private jet, and delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars to benefit Menendez and the national Democratic Party.

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Menendez, a Democrat, has also been helpful to Melgen, according to records and interviews, in ways that could bring the doctor a lucrative windfall.

Two years ago, Melgen, despite an apparent lack of experience in border security issues, bought an ownership interest in a company that had a long-dormant contract with the Dominican Republic for port security. Menendez, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that holds sway over the Dominican Republic, subsequently urged officials in the State and Commerce departments to press the Dominican government to revive that contract, at an estimated $500 million value.

This week, a team of agents from the FBI raided Melgen’s offices in West Palm Beach, removing 30 boxes of documents and other material, and the senator now finds himself defending his relationship with a major political benefactor just as he is on the verge of reaching the most prestigious post of his career: chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

An FBI spokesman declined to describe the focus of the agency’s inquiry, and one law enforcement official cautioned that there were many issues involving Melgen that could be under scrutiny.

On Wednesday, Melgen released a statement through his lawyer: ‘‘The government has not informed Dr. Melgen what its concerns are. However, we are confident that Dr. Melgen has acted appropriately at all times.’’

Menendez, who was elected to a second full term in the Senate last year, declined to be interviewed. His office issued a statement, saying, in part, ‘‘Dr. Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of Senator Menendez for many years.’’ An aide said in an interview that the senator had done nothing improper in advocating for Melgen’s business interests.

Aides to the senator also said, however, that Menendez had accepted two round-trip flights aboard Melgen’s jet for personal vacations in the Dominican Republic in 2010. He failed to report them as gifts or reimburse Melgen at the time, as required, and this month he sent the doctor a check to cover the cost of the flights.

The friendship between the two men goes back to the 1990s, when Menendez, who began serving in the House of Representatives in 1993, began regularly visiting the Dominican Republic. They spent holidays together, often in the Dominican Republic, where Melgen has a home in Casa de Campo, a gated oceanfront resort where houses cost as much as $20 million and some of the country’s richest residents, like Oscar de la Renta, have homes.

Both enjoyed a good cigar and playing golf; Casa de Campo has several places to play, designed by the renowned course architect Pete Dye.

Melgen, who friends say longed to be a power broker, and his wife began donating to Menendez’s campaigns in the late 1990s, and their contributions, and their friendship, grew over the years. By the 2009-10 election cycle, when Menendez took over the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Melgen became an important fundraiser for the effort. In May 2010, he flew the senator to the Dominican Republic and held a fundraiser at his home. He and his wife gave the committee $60,000 and helped raised more.

Later that summer, Melgen also flew Menendez to the Dominican Republic for the two short personal vacations, in August and September. Aides said it was simply because of sloppy paperwork that the senator did not repay Melgen at the time. After reports surfaced late last year on The Daily Caller website about his travels with Melgen, the senator sent Melgen’s company a check for $58,500.

Also in 2010, Melgen moved to buy the ownership interest in ICSSI, a company that had been awarded a contract to provide extensive screening of cargo from ports in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican government was refusing to honor that contract, after Miguel Cocco, then the Dominican customs director, said the deal was an exorbitant giveaway to the company.

In a letter to the president’s legal adviser, Cocco said the deal was ‘‘against the interests of the Dominican government, due to its one-sided nature, exorbitant clauses, that it violates Dominican laws,’’ and that there had been a ‘‘lack of transparency, commercial ethics in the granting of the contract.

Aides acknowledged Wednesday that Menendez had spoken to State Department officials about the contract.

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