5 with ties to N.J. win pardons, clemency from Trump on his final day in workplace

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There was Salomon Melgen, once the nation’s highest-paid Medicare doctor in the country.

Melgen is now in prison for bilking Medicare for millions of dollars, but his friendship with U.S. Sen Robert Menendez turned him into a central figure in a high-profile bribery and corruption case that targeted the New Jersey Democrat, and ultimately ended in a mistrial and a dismissal of all charges.

George Gilmore, the Ocean County Republican political boss, was convicted in a $1 million tax evasion case. He was found guilty in 2019 of concealing money and dodging tax payments to fund lavish vacations, home renovations and a collection of rare items that ranged from model trains and animal tusks.

Ken Kurson, a one-time New Jersey Assembly candidate and friend of the president’s son-in-law, was charged in October with cyberstalking during a heated divorce.

Eliyahu “Eli” Weinstein, a con man from Lakewood, was serving a 24-year prison sentence in connection with a $200 million Ponzi scheme involving one of the largest investment frauds ever seen in New Jersey. And there was a South Jersey surgeon charged with concealing records from federal investigators during a probe into his billing practices.

They were all among the more than 140 people — including Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, as well as rap stars, ex-members of Congress and other allies of the president and his family — who were the beneficiaries of President Donald Trump’s flurry of pardons and commutations in his last hours of office.

The last-minute acts of clemency, expected earlier on Tuesday, but not announced until after midnight on Wednesday morning, followed separate waves of earlier pardons in the past month, mostly to friends and political allies. The president had also pardoned Charles Kushner in December, the father of son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is a senior White House adviser.

The new clemency list released by the White House was not without those whose cases had been championed by criminal justice activists, including a man who has spent nearly 24 years in prison on drug and weapons charges and a former Marine sentenced in 2000 in connection with a cocaine conviction.

But it was the names of Bannon, rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black, both convicted in Florida on weapons charges, and other notables that stood out.

The pardon of Bannon was especially likely to raise questions about the president’s use of his pardon power. He has been charged with duping thousands of donors who believed their money would be used to fulfill Trump’s chief campaign promise to build a wall along the southern border. Instead, he allegedly diverted over a million dollars, paying a salary to one campaign official and personal expenses for himself.

Pardon recipients are conventionally thought of as defendants who have faced justice, often by having served at least some prison time. A pardon nullifies the prosecution and effectively eliminates any prospect for punishment.

Among those with New Jersey connections who were pardoned or had prison sentences commuted are two men now dong long stretches in prison, one who has yet to go to trial, and one whose crimes dated back nearly 20 years:

Salomon Melgen arrives at Federal Court in Newark in 2015 for his trial on bribery charges.NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Now serving a 17-year term for his 2018 conviction on 67 counts of health care fraud in Florida, Melgen, 66, built his practice by giving elderly patients unnecessary eye injections and laser blasts on their retinas, authorities said. Charged with Medicare fraud, he is now in prison.

But the Medicare case took on added significance after Melgen, a wealthy friend and campaign donor of Sen. Robert Menendez, was charged along with Democrat in a wide-ranging federal case of bribery and corruption that fell apart after a jury in Newark could not reach a verdict.

Prosecutors had charged that Menendez accepted lavish personal gifts, expensive meals and golf outings — as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations — in exchange for using the power of his office to lobby for the ophthalmologist’s extensive financial and personal interests in Washington.

The government had argued the senator traded the power of his office in exchange for six-figure campaign contributions, luxury hotel stays and private jet flights. It also claimed that the West Palm Beach Dominican-born physician had sought the senator’s intervention on the doctor’s behalf with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in his Medicare billing dispute, which later grew into federal criminal charges.

They also charged that he sought the help of Menendez with visa applications for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends as well as a contested port security contract in the Dominican Republic that would benefit one of Melgen’s businesses.

Menendez and Melgen maintained they did nothing wrong, saying the vacations, trips on private jets and other gifts were because of their longtime friendship.

After a contentious 11-week courtroom drama in 2018, a hopelessly deadlocked jury in Newark could not reach a verdict. One juror told reporters afterward that most thought the government had no case and was pushing for acquittal. The Department of Justice finally moved to dismiss the entire case after a federal judge subsequently acquitted Menendez and Melgen of seven of the 18 counts against them, finding that prosecutors “failed to produce evidence of facts either direct or circumstantial” to prove a quid pro quo.

While Melgen was cleared of the charges in New Jersey, he was not so fortunate in Florida, where he was convicted in the separate health care fraud case.

During that trial, prosecutors argued that while any doctor could make occasional billing mistakes, Melgen’s were too numerous to be honest. They cited billing for treatment on the fake eyes of one-eyed patients as if they were real, as well as tests that were done in seconds that made them useless for diagnosis, but enabling him to bill Medicare up to several hundred dollars each, for as many as 100 patients a day.

They said Melgen also pocketed millions more by splitting single-use vials of an expensive eye drug into four doses — which he was able to do because there was enough extra medicine in each —billing the government separately for each injection.

During sentencing, prosecutors argued Melgen stole $136 million. His attorneys insisted the proven total was only $64,000, but U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra concluded the evidence shows the theft was at least $73 million, sentencing him to 17 years in federal prison, and ordered to pay $42.6 million in restitution to Medicare. He could have received a life sentence.

Trump commuted Melgen’s sentence Wednesday. In the president’s announcement, he said the commutation was supported by Menendez, Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, as his friends, family, and former employees.

“Numerous patients and friends testify to his generosity in treating all patients, especially those unable to pay or unable to afford healthcare insurance,” the commutation decision read.

George GIlmore

Former New Jersey Republican political boss George Gilmore

Gilmore, 71, of Toms River, the once powerful former Ocean County Republican Party chairman was convicted in 2019 of failing to file payroll taxes for employees and making a false statement on a loan application. He was sentenced by a federal judge to a year and a day in prison.

Prosecutors showed at trial how Gilmore burned through $2.5 million. He spent $700,000 on mortgage and property payments, $300,000 on renovations, like an infinity pool and $400,000 on collectibles, dropping some of that on a $20,000 Steinway piano, $80,000 on collectible trains and animal tusks.

He was also accused of illegally omitting the tax debt from bank applications when he refinanced a mortgage loan with Ocean First Bank for $1.5 million in 2014. Using a cash-out provision, Gilmore allegedly directly collected and kept $572,000, but did not pay the taxes he owed.

In court during sentencing in January, Gilmore quietly apologized to officials, friends and family.

“I’m deeply sorry,” he said.U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson mandated that he receive mental health treatment for his lavish spending and three years of probation.

Trump granted a full pardon to Gilmore. In announcing the decision, the president said the pardon was supported by Bill Stepien, who served as his campaign manager, along with former New Jersey governors Chris Christie, James McGreevey, James Florio, and Donald DiFrancesco, and many state Republican leaders.

“Mr. Gilmore has made important civic contributions over his career in New Jersey,” the president wrote.

In a statement issued through his attorney, Kevin Marino, Gilmore said, “words cannot express my gratitude and humility at being granted a full pardon by the President of the United States. When it came to his attention, President Trump recognized the injustice of my conviction and used the power of his office to right that wrong.

Gilmore said Stepien, “my wonderful colleague and dear friend, advocated tirelessly for me. He went directly to the President and made an impassioned plea that I be pardoned. And my extraordinary lawyer, Kevin Marino—who gutted the government’s case at trial and vowed never to rest until we won — wrote my successful pardon application at the eleventh hour.”

Gilmore had been free on bail at the time he was pardoned.

Eli Weinstein after giving a deposition at the Federal Courthouse in Trenton in 2009.Frank Conlon | Star-Ledger file photo

Weinstein ran a $200 million Ponzi scheme that pulled in unsuspecting investors with fraudulent real estate and land deals. Then while awaiting trial in what authorities said was one of the largest cases of investment fraud they’d encountered, he struck again with a new con game, authorities said. He duped an investor in a $6.7 million scam involving claims he had an inside track on hard-to-get shares of the Facebook initial public offering, they said.

Pleading guilty to both charges, Weinstein was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Trump commuted his sentence, citing the support of Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., the former Democrat-turned-Republican who joined a majority of his House Republican colleagues in trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election that Joe Biden won. He also noted that “numerous victims” had written in support.

“Mr. Weinstein is the father of seven children and a loving husband. He is currently serving his eighth year of a 24-year sentence for a real estate investment fraud and has maintained an exemplary prison history. Upon his release, he will have strong support from his community and members of his faith,” the president wrote.

Ken Kurson in a file photo when he ran for Assembly in New Jersey.Star-Ledger file photo

Kurson, an associate of Jared Kushner and Rudy Giuliani, was arrested in October for a pattern of allegedly stalking and harassing three individuals in 2015, and using multiple aliases to do so, according to the criminal complaint.

The former editor of The New York Observer, a newspaper once owned by Kushner, Kurson, 52, of Maplewood, came under investigation after he submitted an electronic questionnaire to the FBI as he sought a seat on a federal board.

Prosecutors said he indicated to the FBI that he had never used any other names or aliases. However, they charged that Kurson had used a variety of methods, including the use of aliases, to harass and stalk at least three people, one of whom who he blamed for his impending divorce, in 2015.

Kurson allegedly used aliases to try to “ruin the reputation” of the person he blamed for his divorce and their supervisor, including allegedly filing false complaints about them to their employer, posting false negative reviews online under his aliases about them and traveled on multiple occasions to their workplace “for no legitimate purpose.”

The alleged harassment caused the employer of the two of the victims to hire a security guard, according to the complaint.

Kurson allegedly sent a number of harassing emails to the third individual and their employer as well, according to the complaint.

Acting U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of New York Seth D. DuCharme described the allegations as “a disturbing pattern of retaliatory harassment that intimidated and alarmed several victims.” A former speechwriter for Giuliani who co-authored a book with the former New York City mayor in the early 2000s, Kurson unsuccessfully ran for a New Jersey state Assembly seat in 2003. He later became close with the Kushner family, and was tapped by Kushner to be the top editor of The Observer in 2013.

Trump granted a full pardon to Kurson. In his pardon statement, it was noted that Kurson’s ex-wife wrote on his behalf that she never wanted the investigation or his arrest and, “repeatedly asked for the FBI to drop it.”

“I hired a lawyer to protect me from being forced into yet another round of questioning. My disgust with this arrest and the subsequent articles is bottomless,” she was quoted in the statement.

It said the investigation only began because Kurson had been nominated to a role within the Trump Administration.

“He has been a community leader in New York and New Jersey for decades,” the statement said. “In addition, Mr. Kurson is a certified foster parent, a successful business owner, and is passionate about various charitable causes. Mr. Kurson is an upstanding citizen and father to five beautiful children.”

Trump granted a full pardon to Nahas.

A surgeon with a practice in New Jersey, Nahas spend a month in prison in 2003 after he pleaded guilty to obstructing justice in a health care investigation into his billing practices.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had investigated whether the doctor ordered and billed for diagnostic tests without regard to whether they were needed, federal prosecutors said.

The department subpoenaed Nahas for his records. He admitted moving hundreds of patient files to three locations, including an airplane hangar, to conceal them from investigators.

Trump said the 6-year investigation uncovered no underlying billing fraud, and Nahas “has spent the subsequent 18 years working tirelessly to regain the trust and admiration of his patients, colleagues, and community.”

The pardon was also supported by Jeff Van Drew.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Ted Sherman may be reached at tsherman@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @TedShermanSL.