Ethics Panel Weighs Whether to Continue Shelley Berkley Case

Posted July 6, 2012 at 5:18pm

The House Ethics Committee is slated to announce today whether it will investigate if Rep. Shelley Berkley’s (D-Nev.) effort to save a kidney transplant program at a Las Vegas hospital was a conflict of interest given that her husband is a nephrologist who works with the medical center.

Though the committee said in mid-March that it would postpone commenting on the matter — which was referred from an outside ethics office — until after the Nevada primaries, the case has become a talking point in the campaign in which Berkley is trying to unseat Sen. Dean Heller (R).

The Republican super PAC American Crossroads in June spent more than $300,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings, to air a television ad that claims Berkley is “under investigation” for “twisting” the arms of federal regulators to her benefit. Berkley’s campaign quickly countered by airing a spot that shows a letter signed by both Berkley and Heller asking regulators to reconsider revoking Medicare’s approval of the transplant program at University Medical Center, the only such program in Nevada.

“Charged with using her office to enrich her family, Berkley twisted arms to get federal dollars for her husband’s business, a blatant conflict of interest,” the American Crossroads spot intones.

“Seen this attack by Dean Heller’s supporters? The truth: Shelley Berkley worked with Dean Heller, standing up to Washington bureaucrats who wanted to close Nevada’s only kidney transplant center,” the Berkley ad responds.

Heller was appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated when Sen. John Ensign resigned following an extramarital affair with the wife of a former aide, which resulted in an ethics investigation. Both Heller and Berkley had already expressed interest in running for the seat; polls indicate that it will be a tight race, and it is being closely watched by both parties.

The Ethics Committee’s review of Berkley’s role in the 2008 effort to keep the kidney transplant program at University Medical Center began when the Nevada Republican Party asked the independent Office of Congressional Ethics in September to review whether her actions had violated House rules or presented a conflict of interest.

The OCE is a nonpartisan fact-finding body that reviews allegations of misconduct within the House and refers its findings to the Ethics Committee, which has the ability to determine whether a violation has occurred and to take disciplinary action.

“Congresswoman Berkley has used her office to enrich herself … by intervening on behalf of a federally funded kidney transplant program in which she had, and continues to have, a direct financial stake,” read the letter from the party to the OCE.

The details in large part came from a New York Times story published earlier that month detailing how Berkley, over the past five years, had promoted legislation and urged regulators to act in ways that benefited both the transplant program and dialysis centers in the state. Berkley’s husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a nephrologist who has a more than $700,000-a-year contract with University Medical Center and a medical practice that owns dialysis centers.

The committee announced in March that it had received the matter from the OCE and that it would invoke an election-time rule that allows it to delay making a decision on whether a referral merits formal investigation until after the Nevada primaries.

“The Committee notes that the mere fact of a referral or an extension, and the mandatory disclosure of such an extension and the name of the subject of the matter, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee,” Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and ranking member Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) said in a March 23 statement.

The committee could announce that it will formally investigate the matter, dismiss it outright or allow it to revert back to a preliminary and open-ended stage that will require no further comment. Unless an investigative subcommittee is formed, the contents of the OCE’s report on Berkley will be released.

“Regardless of what the committee announces, this election is going to be what it has always been about: Shelley Berkley’s commitment to fighting for Nevada’s middle class families by working to create good paying jobs and incumbent Senator Dean Heller’s record of carrying [a] Wall Street agenda,” Berkley campaign manager Jessica Mackler said in a statement on Friday. “Should the committee conduct a full  investigation, they will find that Shelley Berkley’s one and only concern was for the well being of Nevada’s patients.”