In Testimony, Women Describe Robert Menendez’s Role in Getting Visas


NEWARK — Rosiell Polanco received a surprise call in 2008 from the United States consulate in the Dominican Republic, roughly a week after her visa had been initially rejected, summoning her for a second interview, she testified in a federal courtroom here on Tuesday.

The call came after she had reached out to Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy ophthalmologist from South Florida who had invited her and her sister to visit him, and told him that her visa had been rejected. He assured her that he would call Senator Robert Menendez to get the situation rectified.

“He told me that he was going to try to fix it, that he was going to talk to the senator,” Ms. Polanco testified, speaking in Spanish through a translator. Following a second interview and a review of her application, Ms. Polanco and her sister, Korall, were given visas.

The testimony was part of the prosecution’s case in the federal bribery trial against Mr. Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, who is accused of using his office to benefit Dr. Melgen in exchange for gifts of rides on private jets and luxury hotel stays. Dr. Melgen is Mr. Menendez’s co-defendant in the case and faces related bribery charges. Mr. Menendez has denied any wrongdoing.

Ms. Polanco and another woman, Svitlana Buchyk, who also had a personal relationship with Dr. Melgen, took the witness stand on Tuesday, describing how they had contacted Dr. Melgen for help in obtaining visas.

While their testimony focused primarily on issues of timing and semantics and revealed no evidence of wrongdoing, their appearance had been widely anticipated since the indictment in the case described both women as girlfriends of Dr. Melgen.

But in court there was no reference to their relationship beyond an acknowledgment of friendship. When Kirk Ogrosky, a lawyer for Dr. Melgen, asked Ms. Buchyk, who is from Ukraine, grew up in Spain and now lives in Los Angeles, if she recognized Dr. Melgen, she scanned the room saying it was “hard to recognize” him after so much time had passed. The doctor raised his hand and wiggled his fingers into a wave.

Ms. Buchyk said she had met Mr. Menendez at a dinner with Dr. Melgen at a Miami hotel during which the doctor had “in a joking way” introduced the senator as “the person who helped you get your visa.”

She seemed frustrated at questions about the legitimacy of her visa, repeatedly saying the senator had nothing to do with her obtaining it. She grew combative at times with Peter Koski, the prosecutor, as he questioned her, saying he was “picky with every word that I say.”

“I expected to get it quick because I don’t have anything bad that I’ve done in the past and it was just a basic tourist visa, so why would I have a problem to get it?” she said.

In her testimony, Ms. Buchyk expressed irritation with the pace of government institutions and grew increasingly agitated recalling the federal investigation and how prosecutors prepared her for her testimony.

“It just seems very long when I’m around them,” she said.

During the testimony of Ms. Pollanco, who now lives in Raleigh, N.C., she explained that when her initial application had been denied, the consular officer didn’t even look at the documents in her application, which included letters from Mr. Menendez and Dr. Melgen.

After she called Dr. Melgen, she was granted another interview, she said, though she did not formally reapply for her visa.

Ms. Pollanco said she had met Mr. Menendez at Mr. Melgen’s home in Casa de Campo, a luxury beach resort in the Dominican Republic.

Before the two women took the stand, the government introduced an email sent by Mark E. Lopes, a former senior policy adviser to Mr. Menendez, to Danny O’Brien, a former chief of staff, in November 2009, describing how Mr. Menendez was “helping secure visas in the DR for Sal M.”

In earlier testimony during the trial, Mr. Lopes had said when he met Dr. Melgen for the first time a month earlier at a business conference in Spain, he did not recall working on the visa applications.

In a portion of the email that was read aloud by Judge William H. Walls without the jury present during a discussion about whether it should be admitted as evidence, Mr. Lopes said that Mr. Menendez should not be calling ambassadors “about stuff like this.” The email also began, “Danny, taking this thread offline and removing RM.”

A highly redacted version of the email, which was sent from a personal email account used by Mr. Lopes, was allowed into evidence. Mr. Lopes’s concern about involving ambassadors was part of the redaction.

During cross-examination, Mr. Lopes said his reference to “offline” and using his personal email wasn’t nefarious or an attempt to conceal the conversation, but an effort to keep the conversation “between myself and Danny O’Brien.”

After the two women testified, the prosecution called Joel Nantais, a State Department official, to examine their visa applications.

During his testimony, both sides focused on whether it was common practice for a senator to get involved in such applications.

“It’s common that we hear from congressional staff,” Mr. Nantais said, responding to a question from Abbe Lowell, one of Mr. Menendez’s lawyers. “What was uncommon was the member themselves reaching out, in my experience.”



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