Ethics Panel to Review Allegations Against Shelley Berkley, Vern Buchanan

Posted March 23, 2012 at 12:47pm

Updated: 3:03 p.m.

The House Ethics Committee confirmed today that it is looking into possible ethics violations by Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) and Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) after an independent ethics office recommended that the allegations about the two lawmakers needed further review.

In a statement released by Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and ranking member Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), the committee said the Office of Congressional Ethics had referred the matters for additional review on Feb. 9. The committee must release the OCE’s findings after 45 days or issue a public statement that it is extending consideration of the matter for another 45-day period.

“The Committee notes that the mere fact of a referral or extension, and the mandatory disclosure of such an extension and the name of the subject of the matter, does not indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee,” the statement reads.

Though the statement did not detail the charges that the lawmakers face and the OCE’s findings remain confidential until the end of the extension period, press reports and other accounts indicate what the committee could be considering.

For Buchanan, it is the second time the lawmaker has landed before the Ethics Committee this year.

The committee confirmed in February that it would continue reviewing whether the Florida Republican had left sources of income and director positions off of his annual disclosure forms, but the panel indicated it would do so without forming a formal investigative subcommittee.

That case originated in the OCE as well and resulted in the release of a 336-page report that found Buchanan failed to disclose 17 positions for the calendar years 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Buchanan corrected the forms and told OCE investigators that the omissions were “inadvertent mistakes.” His attorney said the committee’s decision to continue reviewing the matter past the 90-day period after the OCE referral reflected the committee’s workload, not the actions of his client.

Buchanan is also thought to be the subject of a Justice Department probe into whether he broke campaign finance laws by directing his former business partner, Sam Kazran, to reimburse car dealership employees for contributions made to Buchanan’s Congressional campaigns, though it is unclear whether the latest ethics case is in any way related.

The Federal Election Commission ended a two-year investigation of similar allegations and concluded there would be “no further action” and the file would be closed. Kazran settled a separate Federal Election Commission case related to the Buchanan campaign last month by agreeing to repay a nominal amount. A lawsuit between Kazran and Buchanan is ongoing.

“We are working with the committee and are confident that, at the end of its review, the committee will conclude that Congressman Buchanan engaged in no wrongdoing,” Buchanan spokesman Max Goodman said.

The Nevada State Republican Party asked the OCE to investigate whether Berkley broke House rules when she intervened on behalf of a federally funded kidney transplant program in which her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, had a financial interest, though it is unclear whether the office’s referral is related.

The request followed a New York Times story that detailed how Berkley has, over the course of five years, promoted legislation that benefitted Lehrner, who is a practicing nephrologist. Berkley helped block an effort to end a kidney transplant program at the hospital where Lehrner has a contract. A kidney industry political action committee chaired by Lehrner supports Berkley, who is running for Senate.

“As the committee reviews this complaint, they will determine that Congresswoman Shelley Berkley’s only concern is for the well being of Nevada’s patients,” campaign manager Jessica Mackler said in a statement. “That’s why she fought against out-of-state Washington bureaucrats from restricting patients’ access to care and why she joined fellow Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller to stop Nevada’s only kidney transplant program from being shut down.”

The committee now has until May 9 to decide whether it will empanel a subcommittee to formally investigate the allegations against Buchanan. At that point, if a subcommittee is not formed, the OCE’s report on the lawmaker, with details about possible ethics violations, will be released. The committee decided to use a election-time rule that will allow it to delay making a decision in Berkley’s case until July 9, nearly a month after her primary.