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House Ethics Committee to launch full investigation into allegations against Berkley

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Steve Marcus

U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., waves to supporters during a Democratic election party at the Aria on Tuesday. Her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, applauds at left.

Updated Monday, July 9, 2012 | 4:46 p.m.

The U.S. House Ethics Committee has voted unanimously to form an investigative subcommittee to explore whether U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley used her official position to advocate for policy that benefited her family’s financial situation.

“The committee has determined to take this action based upon a discretionary review of the allegations, as well as evidence obtained pursuant to (House rules),” according to a press release issued today. “The committee notes that the mere fact of establishing an investigative subcommittee does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred.”

The subcommittee will determine whether Berkley violated the House’s Code of Official Conduct “with respect to alleged communications and activities with or on behalf of entities in which Representative Berkley’s husband had a financial interest.”

In 2008, Berkley joined with the rest of the Nevada delegation to lobby to keep the kidney transplant center open at University Medical Center.

Her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a kidney doctor whose medical firm had a contract to provide kidney care at UMC. Closing the transplant center would have meant Southern Nevadans would have to travel out of state to receive a transplant.

Berkley also wrote a letter to the chairman of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over Medicare, petitioning him not to lower Medicare reimbursement rates for dialysis.

Berkley has said that she was motivated by protecting patient care in Las Vegas and not by any personal financial motives. She also worked to protect reimbursement rates for many different kinds of care, not just dialysis treatments, according to her campaign.

In a brief interview following the committee's decision, Berkley animatedly defended her work lobbying for kidney care.

“There was no way I was going to sit back and allow a kidney transplant program, the only one in the entire state, to be closed," Berkley said. "Two hundred people were waiting in line for a kidney transplant when they were going to close this ... I am absolutely convinced that when this investigation is finished there’s only one decision that the committee can possibly reach and that was my only concern was for the health and well-being of the people I represent.”

Berkley said she is proud of her record on health care, noting she has fought for legislation on many different diseases, not just kidney disease.

“I introduced 114 pieces of health legislation, everything from osteoporosis to cancer," she said. "Eight of the 114 pieces of legislation that I introduced were kidney related. Now kidney disease is an epidemic in this country, and it deserved eight pieces of legislation. I’m proud of that record.”

Berkley said she has had no conversations with members of the ethics committee in the lead up to their decision. But she has promised to keep confidential her interactions with the committee going forward.

The ethics probe has dogged her tight Senate race against Republican Dean Heller. The decision by the committee to move forward with a full investigation means her campaign will be forced to contend with the issue through the fall.

Immediately following the decision, Berkley's campaign manager Jessica Mackler said Berkley is "pleased" the committee will conduct a full investigation into the facts of the case.

"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," Mackler said. "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 said she wasn't concerned about the timing of the announcement.

“What I do know is once this is complete, there’s not going to be a question in anybody’s mind that my only concern was for the health and well-being of the people I represent,” she said.

But when asked whether she wanted the committee to actually issue its decision prior to the election, Berkley sounded far less confident.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Heller’s campaign declined to comment on the Ethics Committee’s announcement Monday afternoon, but the Senate Republicans' campaign arm decided to join the fray.

“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," National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Executive Director Rob Jesmer said in a written statement. "Since Berkley entered the political arena we’ve seen a long pattern of ethical questions surrounding her conduct.  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.

The Office of Congressional Ethics had recommended the Ethics committee, which is made up of five Republicans and five Democrats, review Berkley’s case in February. The Committee then set itself a deadline of July 9 back in late March to alert the public on how it planned to proceed. The committee elected not to release any documents Monday, including a summary of the OCE’s report.

Rep. K. Michael Conaway, a Republican from Texas, will chair the subcommittee investigating Berkley, and Rep. Donna Edwards, a Democrat from Maryland, will serve as ranking member.

The committee has no deadline to complete its investigation, which itself may indicate how quickly it plans to proceed. Whether she wins or loses her Senate race come November, Berkley’s term in the House is done at the end of the calendar year. After that, the Ethics committee no longer has jurisdiction over her case anyway.

This is the first time in three years the House Ethics Committee has moved a case recommended by the OCE to an investigative subcommittee. They last established one in the case of Rep. Maxine Waters, who allegedly advocated for a bank in which her husband has significant financial interest.

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