Las Vegas Sun

September 25, 2017

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letter from washington:

Berkley ethics probe raises new questions on role of lawmaker spouses


Karoun Demirjian

Rep. Shelley Berkley conducts office business in her home on Capitol Hill. After her failed Senate bid, the house has been put up for sale.

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WASHINGTON — The House Ethics Committee ended more than a year of speculation about whether Rep. Shelley Berkley unethically advocated for policies to benefit her husband’s kidney care practice, finding her not guilty of the allegations we knew about and guilty of one — involving her husband’s unsettled accounts with Veterans Affairs — that we didn’t.

But the committee’s decision last week opens a new chapter of head-scratching over a greater question: What are the rules on routine congressional advocacy when that advocacy involves a lawmaker’s spouse — who also is a constituent?

It’s not expressly clear — and that’s one thing Berkley and the Ethics Committee agree on.

“The House should create much clearer guidance for the community and the public on conflicts-of-interest rules,” the Ethics Committee wrote in its decision. The committee "believes the time has come to engage in comprehensive review of the House’s conflicts standards so that they are clearer and more easily digested by the House community.”

The committee also cited its recent review of Rep. Maxine Waters, who was accused of using her position to give a bank her husband had a major stake in access to the Obama administration. The committee absolved her of guilt this year.

Berkley was accused of using her position to lobby colleagues in Congress against lowering Medicare payments for kidney care. She also worked to prevent the Obama administration from closing Las Vegas’ only kidney transplant center. Her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a kidney doctor whose firm holds the sole contract for that transplant center and serves many patients on Medicare.

The committee absolved Berkley of guilt on those points but found she did abuse her position when she urged Veterans Affairs to respond to her husband’s requests — more than one year’s worth, she said — to be paid for services provided to veterans.

“Berkley violated House rules and other laws, rules and standards of conduct by improperly using her official position for her beneficial interest by permitting her office to take official action specifically on behalf of her husband’s medical practice,” the committee wrote.

Berkley maintained she was just helping her husband the same as she would any constituent.

Berkley said in an interview Thursday that when she made the request to the VA to move things along in 2008, her office was dealing with several “major problems of doctors not getting paid by Medicare — and when this came up it was no different.”

“I treated my husband no differently than any other constituent,” she said.

And there is the crux of the problem.

When the House Ethics Committee this year determined it would conduct a full investigation of Berkley, ethics experts speculated that the charges against Berkley — and Waters — were uncharted territory for the 224-year-old House of Representatives.

“In the past, male legislators did not have wives who were involved in businesses,” Robert Stern, a visiting public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley who is known for his research on ethics, told the Sun at the time. “They’re both female legislators accused of trying to help businesses owned by their husbands. It’ll be real interesting how these turn out.”

Berkley is picking up that refrain — and watching with keen interest how the conversation proceeds, as it is now a part of her congressional legacy.

“The rules have to change to keep up with the reality of the 21st century and the fact that there are more and more women here who are married to successful men — and how do you interact?” Berkley said. “If your spouse is your constituent and they have an issue, are they precluded by virtue of the fact that they are married to a congressperson from exercising their same rights as anybody else? Do they lose those rights?

“My situation is going to be front and center in that discussion,” she said.

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