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Rep. Shelley Berkley facing questions about legislation that benefitted husband’s practice

Berkley

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 Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011 | 11:04 a.m.

In Las Vegas, it has been no secret that Rep. Shelley Berkley -- our richest representative -- is worth millions because of her husband’s dialysis practice.

But an article in today’s New York Times suggests Berkley has benefitted by using Congressional influence to subsidize kidney treatments.

It’s a charge that’s bound to echo over the next year on the campaign trail, where the Nevada Democrat will likely face Republican Sen. Dean Heller in a race to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated earlier this year by John Ensign.

Berkley has been a vocal advocate for funding dialysis treatments, sponsoring at least five bills in the House to expand federal reimbursement rates for kidney care, according to the Times article. She lumps those efforts in with her efforts to cover osteoporosis and heart disease: something she says she has to do to serve the fastest-growing senior population in the country.

But it’s a fact that her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, has the only kidney transplant contract in the state: a deal with the University Medical Center worth $738,000 a year.

It’s a potentially significant conflict of interest, even if Berkley and Lehrner are operating in a gray area between the letter and the spirit of lobbying law. Spouses of members of Congress cannot be lobbyists, but there’s no prohibition against privately influential discussions.

As Lehrner, whom the Times article says helped set up a political action committee to lobby for federal support of renal care, jokingly put it in 2008: if you want to influence Washington, “marry an elected official.”

But Berkley’s more likely to see fallout from this charge on the campaign trail than in an ethics committee room.

Accusations of nepotism won’t help Berkley as she campaigns on a platform of health and elder care -- Berkley has said that she plans to make Medicare and Social Security the pillars of her campaign. And Heller has accused her of lying about Republicans’ intentions when it comes to changing those programs, and taking a spendthrift vote in support of the health care bill.

“I’m a little bit mixed on it,” Melanie Sloan, the head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington told Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston this morning. “This is a clear appearance problem and she shouldn’t have done it.”

But Sloan stopped short of calling Berkley’s actions entirely unethical.

While she clearly used her influence as a congresswoman to campaign for her husband’s industry, it doesn’t look like she extended that influence to campaign directly for her husband. Lehrner simply doesn’t have that much competition in Nevada: in his most recent contract with UMC, Lehrner submitted the only bid.

In a statement released Tuesday morning, Berkley’s Senate campaign responded to the New York Times story, saying it would have been a conflict of interest and disservice to her constituents not to campaign for increased attention to kidney diseases just because her husband is a kidney doctor.

“While the New York Times may not care about the healthcare needs of my fellow Nevadans, I do,” she said in the statement. “I will never stop fighting on behalf of my constituents just because my husband is a doctor -- as I wont stop standing up for veterans because my father served in World War II.”

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