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November 28, 2015

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election 2012:

House ethics panel let Waters off the hook; what does that mean for Berkley?

Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley speaks during the National Clean Energy Summit 5.0 at the Bellagio Tuesday, August 7, 2012.

Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley speaks during the National Clean Energy Summit 5.0 at the Bellagio Tuesday, August 7, 2012.

The House Committee on Ethics decided last month to absolve of any wrongdoing a Democratic congresswoman under investigation for allegedly using her official position to promote her husband’s financial interests.

No, it wasn’t Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley. But the committee’s decision in Rep. Maxine Waters’ case could set a precedent for the Berkley case.

“If I were Shelley Berkley’s lawyer, I’d be relying on the fact that they didn’t find a conflict in the Waters case,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization in D.C. “I think it will have an effect on the Berkley case.”

But there are also enough differences that some ethics watchdogs think the Waters decision may only further complicate matters for Berkley.

“The precedent it set is toward enforcing the stringency of those rules. They made that very clear,” said Craig Holman, lobbyist with Public Citizen, another ethics watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

Waters had been accused of using her position and influence as a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee to make sure OneUnited, a bank in which her husband had a significant financial stake, had a seat at the table in a special meeting she arranged between Treasury officials and minority-owned banks in 2008.

But ethics committee investigators found that Waters had distanced herself from the matter as soon as she became aware of the potential ethical conflict, and encouraged her chief of staff Mikael Moore — who is also her grandson — to do the same. He didn’t, and was censured by the ethics committee even as they found Waters free of wrongdoing.

“That very clearly sets a precedent, for any case in which they find that a lawmaker or staffer pursued official actions that benefitted an immediate family member,” Holman said. “The finding for Shelley Berkley will be based on whether she knowingly pursued a benefit for her personal family ... they are very likely to find that is a violation of the conflict of interest code.”

Berkley’s campaign denies that the congresswoman did anything to inspire the attention, much less the potential censure, of the ethics committee. At question is her conduct urging fellow lawmakers to support maintaining Medicare reimbursement rates for kidney care and urging administration officials not to shutter Las Vegas’ sole kidney transplant facility at University Medical Center, despite the fact that her husband is a kidney doctor with a minority stake in the firm that holds that UMC contract.

The committee formally announced the launch of its Berkley investigation in July. But when it comes to wrapping that up, Waters may set yet another precedent — on timing.

It took the ethics committee three years to resolve the Waters case, which got mired in various procedural bumbles, including leaks and partisan standoffs between committee members along the way. They’ve had Berkley’s case now for a scant three months. Perhaps more important, there’s only another three months left before the House committee loses jurisdiction over Berkley, who is running for Senate. Whether she wins or loses that race against Dean Heller, she will no longer be in the House.

“The House ethics committee literally fell apart with the Maxine Waters case, with illegal leaks and partisan squabbling ... so I would expect them to start acting in a somewhat more professional manner at this point,” Holman said. “I can see the goal of the ethics committee being the end of the year.”

No matter what precedent the Waters case may set, there’s little chance Berkley will see a resolution of her own case before the election, as ethics committee members aren’t even scheduled to come back to Washington until mid-November.

“I don’t think they’re ever going to clear up Berkley for us,” Sloan said. “If Berkley loses the Senate race then I guess they have the rest of November and December, but I just don’t know why they would feel the need to do anything. And if she wins, I still suppose it’s possible — but again, why would they feel the need?

“If they don’t do it before the end of the year, it’s over,” Sloan concluded.

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