By Sean Whaley, Nevada News Bureau
CARSON CITY – The House Ethics Committee announced today that it has established an investigative subcommittee to review ethics questions raised about Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and whether she inappropriately furthered the business interests of her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner.
The committee voted unanimously on June 29 to establish the subcommittee.
“Pursuant to the committee’s action, the investigative subcommittee shall have jurisdiction to determine whether Representative Shelley Berkley violated the Code of Official Conduct or any law, rule, regulation, or other applicable standard of conduct in the performance of her duties or the discharge of her responsibilities, with respect to alleged communications and activities with or on behalf of entities in which Representative Berkley’s husband had a financial interest,” committee Chairman Jo Bonner and Ranking Member Linda Sánchez said in a statement.
“The committee notes that the mere fact of establishing an investigative subcommittee does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred,” the statement said.
The decision means the ethics questions surrounding Berkley will continue to ferment as her bid for the U.S. Senate against Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., heats up ahead of the November general election.
The race is considered to be critical for both Republicans and Democrats seeking control of the Senate in the 2012 election.
The House Ethics Committee announced that Rep. Michael Conaway will serve as the chairman of the investigative subcommittee, and Rep. Donna Edwards will serve as the ranking member. The other two members of the subcommittee are Reps. Robert Latta and Adam Schiff.
“No other public comment will be made on this matter except in accordance with committee rules,” the release said.
The ethics questions were first raised in a New York Times report published in September 2011. The Nevada State Republican Party then filed a complaint based on the reports, which involved her efforts to preserve a Nevada kidney transplant program at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas.
Berkley and other members of Nevada’s Congressional delegation were able to preserve the program. But the New York Times said her efforts, “also benefited her husband, a physician whose nephrology practice directs medical services at the hospital’s kidney care department — an arrangement that expanded after her intervention and is now reflected in a $738,000-a-year contract with the hospital.”
The report said that Lehrner helped build a political action committee that relied on Berkley to push its causes.
“She has co-sponsored at least five House bills that would expand federal reimbursements or other assistance for kidney care, written letters to regulators to block enforcing rules or ease the flow of money to kidney care centers and appeared regularly at fund-raising events sponsored by a professional organization her husband has helped run,” the newspaper reported.
Berkley has defended her efforts to preserve the transplant program and said her only concerns were for the patients waiting for transplants.
“The reality is I’ve never done anything, or never advocated for anything that wasn’t in the best interest of patients and patient care,” she said in a recent interview on the Face To Face television program.
Jessica Mackler, campaign manager for Berkley’s Senate campaign, released a statement on the committee’s action: “We are pleased with the committee’s decision to conduct a full and fair investigation, which will ensure all the facts are reviewed. 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,” the statement said. “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.”
National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Jesmer also commented on the House Ethics Committee decision: “It speaks volumes that even Shelley Berkley’s Democrat colleagues unanimously voted to move forward investigating Berkley’s use of her office to enrich her and her husband. Since Berkley entered the political arena we’ve seen a long pattern of ethical questions surrounding her conduct.”