Mona Shield Payne/Special to the Sun
Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Reporters don’t usually have to hunt down Rep. Shelley Berkley. More often than not, if you want to speak to her, she wants to speak to you.
But ethics allegations do funny things to lawmakers.
After former Nevada Sen. John Ensign became the subject of an ethics inquiry — one that ultimately led to his resignation — he perfected the art of the dodge: entering and exiting the Senate chamber by restricted-access staircases and secret cloakroom doors, promising to meet reporters and then giving them the slip.
These days, Berkley is trying to avoid talking about far less serious issues than Ensign confronted with a far more elaborate strategy: a zone defense.
Two weeks ago, The New York Times published an article pointing out that Berkley’s husband, kidney doctor Larry Lehrner, had benefited from her congressional advocacy for federal funding of kidney care.
At first, Berkley didn’t let bad press break her stride. She gave interviews and went about her business as usual. But last week, an independent ethics watchdog group criticized her “lack of regard for the rules” and the Nevada GOP requested an official inquiry into her conduct.
I tried to talk to her as usual the day the GOP made that request. Instead I was met by her chief of staff, Richard Urey, and two staffers on loan from Sen. Harry Reid’s office.
They started to swarm the hall shortly after Berkley cast me a casual “oh, have to vote,” and quickly ducked onto the House floor, a members-only zone.
When she didn’t reappear after 10 minutes, it was clear something had changed.
“Is she going to be coming out this way?” I asked the Reid staffer who had come in with her, and was waiting by the House chamber’s east doors. There are nine exits from the House chamber: four are glass doors off the speaker’s lobby, three are heavily guarded by Capitol police, and two go through private cloakrooms.
A slow shrug was the answer.
“Why don’t you go work on your other story?” Berkley’s chief of staff asked me after about a half-hour. “Better to do a very thorough job on that.”
“Maybe I’m just the decoy,” he added, grinning.
It’s not unusual for lawmakers to avoid reporters. For example, it took eight frustrating months to get then-Rep. Dean Heller to talk to me when I came to Capitol Hill for the Sun. (He is Berkley’s rival for the Senate in 2012.)
My hourlong game of cat-and-mouse with Berkley was only striking because it’s such a marked shift.
She has combed hallways around the House chamber to respond to requests for an interview. She has sat on a bench outside the House chamber, conversing with reporters in 90-second spurts so she could dart in and out of a series of two-minute votes without shirking on answering a single question.
But Wednesday, it was her staffers who were darting around hallways, often getting clumped up as they tried to keep a close eye on me. They’re not used to this sort of operation: Reid has about a 10-foot-long walk between the Senate and his office, where reporters aren’t allowed to loiter, and Berkley, like I said, doesn’t avoid the press.
But what’s unique for Berkley is normal for lawmakers in crisis mode.
“She could be thrown off-balance by the fact that she’s under ethical challenge here ... and the instinct is to draw a circle around and close off access,” said Chris Arterton, a professor of political management at George Washington University. “But kind of insulating herself from the press certainly does raise more questions, and is probably a bad strategy ... Face the music, and put it behind you.”
To her credit, Berkley eventually did.
I was a few steps into what I’d decided would be my last lap of the House when I heard a familiar laugh — and noticed the hallway was strangely clear of staffers. I sprinted for her usual exit.
She had made it about a quarter of the way down the stairs, but stopped when I called her name, and answered one question about the allegations.
“This is pure partisan politics on the part of the Republican Party and I’m not going to let them interfere with the job I have to do in order to protect the patients in my congressional district, in my state, and across the United States of America,” she said. “Any other questions, call the office.”