Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun
Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011 | 12:11 p.m.
The Nevada Republican Party filed an official complaint with the Office of Congressional ethics Wednesday morning, charging that Senate hopeful Shelley Berkley used her position as congresswoman to advance the financial interests of her husband, kidney specialist Dr. Larry Lehrner.
“Congresswoman Berkley has used her office to enrich herself,” the complaint reads. “She has repeatedly taken direct action on behalf of her husband’s financial interests while accepting campaign contributions from her husband’s industry’s PAC, which was chaired by her husband."
Two weeks ago, a report in the New York Times about Berkley’s efforts to advocate for federal funding of kidney care in Congress sparked controversy for the Democratic front-runner for the Senate seat John Ensign vacated this spring. Dean Heller, a Republican, is serving out the rest of Ensign’s term, and is running to keep the seat in 2012.
Berkley’s husband Lehrner has the only federally funded contract to provide kidney transplant services at University Medical Center in Las Vegas -- a contract worth $738,000 a year.
“I think going to bat for the hospital [UMC], it’s really hard for me to see that as a big conflict,” Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an nonpartisan ethics watchdog group, to the AP. “The concept of closing the only transplant center in the entire state, that seems to be like a big deal, and it seems like any member of Congress would have to be involved, plus she didn’t initiate it, so it just doesn’t bother me very much.”
But on Tuesday, CREW listed Berkley in its report on the most corrupt members of Congress. The report gives her a “dishonorable mention” -- a designation that doesn’t accuse her outright of violating the law, but demonstrates she has a “lack of regard for the rules.”
The ethics complaint now opens the door to the possibility of consequences beyond the campaign trail.
“Nevadans deserve to know the truth,” Nevada GOP chair Amy Tarkanian said in a statement released with a copy of the complaint. “Why did Shelley Berkley fail to disclose this blatant conflict of interest, and besides violating the public trust, did she break any rules with her disturbing backroom behavior in Washington?”
A complaint does not automatically trigger an ethics inquiry, and the ethics committee doesn’t publicize or comment on whether or not they’ve commenced a preliminary review of a representative until they’ve done a fair amount of fact-finding.
State Democrats today lobbed a counter-charge: that the Nevada’s GOP’s complaint is “hyper-partisan and highly hypocritical” given that Heller has also seemingly cast votes in favor of lobbyists’ positions shortly after accepting their checks.
Last June, a lobbyist for British Petroleum co-hosted a fundraiser for Heller, shortly after he was sworn in as Nevada’s 25th senator, and shortly before he voted against ending subsidies for big oil companies.
But that counter-charge only speaks to half the complaint: Heller’s not related to the lobbyists he associates with, and while his campaign chest might benefit from PAC donations, there’s no thread of an allegation that he could also be personally profitting from his votes.
Spokesmen for Heller and the National Republican Senatorial Committee accused Berkley of petty politics in the past for her charges that his lobbying ties were suspect.
Democrats do not appear to have any plans to formalize their charge against Heller with an ethics complaint.