WASHINGTON -- The House Ethics Committee has launched an investigation to further its inquiry into allegations that Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Nevada Democrat who is running for Senate, intervened to keep open a Las Vegas kidney transplant center in which her husband had a financial interest.
The Ethics Committee has been reviewing the complaint filed by the Nevada Republican Party against the congresswoman since February, but voted unanimously to impanel an investigative subcommittee. The committee, which tends toward discretion, acknowledged its review in a brief statement Monday evening and did not disclose details of the probe.
“The committee has determined to take this action based upon a discretionary review of the allegations, as well as evidence obtained,” the statement said. “The committee notes that the mere fact of establishing an investigative subcommittee does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred.”
Berkley is in a hard-fought race this fall against Republican Sen. Dean Heller in one of the most watched Senate contests in the country. Democrats nationally have rallied behind the seven-term Las Vegas-area representative as one of their best chances to pick up a Republican-held seat in the critical swing state of Nevada -- and prevent the GOP from taking control of the chamber.
Heller has been in the Senate since last year, when he was appointed to finish the term of then-Sen. John Ensign, the Republican who resigned amid his own ethics investigation after having an affair with a staff member who was married to a top aide. Ensign’s parents gave the woman and her husband a $96,000 payment as they left his employment, and the senator came under scrutiny when the aide revealed he had lobbied the Senate office in violation of the congressional lobbying rules for former staff members.
The investigation may prove difficult for the Berkley campaign, which said Monday it welcomed the complete airing of the issue.
“We are pleased with the committee’s decision to conduct a full and fair investigation, which will ensure all the facts are reviewed,” said Jessica Mackler, Berkley’s campaign manager. “We are confident that ultimately it will be clear that Congresswoman Berkley’s one and only concern was for the health and well being of Nevada’s patients. That’s why she joined then Republican Congressman Dean Heller to prevent Nevada’s only kidney transplant program from being shut down by Washington bureaucrats. With more than 200 Nevada patients desperately waiting for a lifesaving kidney transplant, it would have been irresponsible of her not to work with the state’s entire congressional delegation to protect the program.”
Berkley’s work on behalf of the kidney transplant center came under question last fall, after the New York Times reported that her husband's medical practice benefited from her efforts to block federal regulators from shutting down a kidney transplant program at University Medical Center in Nevada.
The transplant program is the only one in the state, and the entire congressional delegation had rallied to save it, the Nevada press has reported, even though its patient care was spotty.
Berkley's husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a partner in a medical practice that provides kidney care services to the hospital. The contract was expanded to $738,000 after Berkley's intervention, the New York Times reported.
The Ethics Committee voted unanimously June 29 to establish the investigative subcommittee, which will have the jurisdiction to determine whether Berkley violated any laws or other rules applicable to members of Congress. The subcommittee has no immediate timeline to complete its work.
Republican campaign officials pressed the issue after Monday’s announcement.
“Nevadans deserve someone in the Senate who they can trust to work on their behalf and not someone -- like Ms. Berkley -- who puts her own financial and political interests first,” said Rob Jesmer, executive director of the GOP’s Senate campaign committee.