House Ethics Will Probe Shelley Berkley’s Role in Saving Transplant Program

Posted July 9, 2012 at 5:25pm

Updated: 7:40 p.m.

The House Ethics Committee said today it will investigate whether Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) broke any ethics rules or laws when she intervened to save a kidney transplant program at a hospital where her physician husband had a lucrative contract.

In a statement, Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and ranking member Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) said the committee voted unanimously on June 29 to establish an investigative subcommittee to determine whether Berkley violated “any law, rule, regulation, or other applicable standard of conduct … with respect to alleged communications and activities with or on behalf of entities in which Representative Berkley’s husband had a financial interest.”

Reps. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) and Donna Edwards (D-Md.) — both current Ethics Committee members — will serve as chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee. Reps. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) will also serve on the investigative subcommittee, which will remain active until the end of the 112th Congress.

Berkley, now serving her seventh term in the House, is trying to unseat Sen. Dean Heller (R) in a closely watched Senate race. Her campaign expressed confidence today that she would be cleared of wrongdoing.

“I am very, very optimistic and convinced that once there’s a full and fair investigation that there will be no question in anybody’s mind that my only concern was for the health and well being of the people of Nevada,” Berkley said. “I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had stepped back and that program would have closed.”

The committee noted in its announcement that it was already looking into allegations that Berkley’s effort to save the kidney transplant program at Las Vegas’ University Medical Center was a conflict of interest when it received a referral from the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. In September, the Nevada Republican Party asked the nonpartisan fact-finding body to review the matter and refer its findings to the committee, which has the ability to determine whether a violation has occurred and to take disciplinary action.

The New York Times, just days before the request was made, had published a story about 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 referral from OCE triggered a window during which the committee had to decide whether to investigate the matter formally or release the office’s findings. Bonner and Sánchez announced in March that the committee had invoked an election-time rule that allowed it to delay making a decision on whether the case merited formal investigation until after the Nevada primaries.

Berkley has pointed out that Heller joined the effort to save the transplant program at University Medical Center, which is the only one if its kind in Nevada.

“With more than 200 Nevada patients desperately waiting for a life-saving kidney transplant, it would have been irresponsible of her not to work with the state’s entire Congressional delegation to protect the program,” campaign manager Jessica Mackler said.

The Ethics Committee also has active subcommittees reviewing allegations that Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) misused official resources and examining the events that led to the resignation of former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.). The committee, with the assistance of outside counsel, is also three years into a conflict-of-interest case involving Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.