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January 22, 2018

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Berkley finds refuge from ethics questions among supporters at home


Leila Navidi

Rep. Shelley Berkley. D-Nev. speaks during the Nevada State Democratic Party Convention at Bally’s Event Center in Las Vegas on Saturday, June 9, 2012.

Berkley ethics probe

Congress announced an ethics probe into Las Vegas Congresswoman Shelley Berkley on Monday. Some say Berkley's husband, a UMC kidney doctor, allegedly benefited from Berkley's support of kidney programs at UMC.

The U.S. House Ethics Committee delivered a shot across the bow of Shelley Berkley’s Senate campaign this week when it announced a unanimous decision to appoint an investigative subcommittee to explore whether the congresswoman used her position to advocate for policies that benefited her family financially.

On Friday, during her first public appearance in Nevada since the ethics investigation was announced Monday, Berkley steadied the ship and took an injection of energy from her ardent supporters — including several local union affiliates, veterans, the Alliance for Retired Americans and Nevada Democrats — at a political rally in Henderson.

“(Berkley) has fought for middle-class families. She has fought for people who are underprivileged, who are less fortunate, people who feel like they don’t have a chance in this country. Those are the people who Shelley has fought for, not the big corporations, not the big oil companies, but the average people like you and I. That’s why I’m supporting her,” said state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, who touted Berkley’s support for the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform.

Iraq War veteran Leo Dunson also took the podium in front of a large blue banner reading “Shelley Berkley Fighter for Nevada” to commend Berkley on her work to pass the Justin Bailey Act to aid veterans with substance abuse problems and to secure funding for a Southern Nevada Veterans Affairs medical center.

In 2008, Berkley and the rest of the Nevada delegation, including then-Rep. Dean Heller, lobbied to keep the University Medical Center kidney transplant center open.

Berkley’s husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a kidney doctor whose medical firm had a contract to provide kidney care at UMC. Without the UMC transplant center, Southern Nevadans would have had to travel out of state to receive a transplant.

“There are 200 of our fellow Nevadans who were waiting for a life-saving gift of a kidney who might have died if we hadn’t saved that transplant program,” Berkley told the crowd at the Nevada office of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

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.

The congresswoman has said her motivation was protecting patient care in Las Vegas, not for personal financial reasons. She also worked to protect reimbursement rates for other kinds of care, not just dialysis treatments, according to her campaign.

“In addition to the hospital contract, (Lehrner) operates a dozen dialysis centers in Nevada and has played a central role in an industry campaign to lobby members of Congress — including his wife — on behalf of kidney care providers,” The New York Times reported in September, raising the first questions of impropriety.

On Friday, though, Berkley disputed that her husband ever participated in lobbying.

“My husband is a gifted doctor. He works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He is not a lobbyist,” she told the Sun after the rally. “So, the idea that he has anything to do with lobbying is ridiculous. ... What I would do in the future, and I’ve said this a number of times, I would make sure that if there is anybody within the sound of my voice who didn’t know my husband was a physician, they would know by the end of the conversation.”

Terri Boling, a Berkley supporter who attended the event, said she didn’t know before news of the investigation broke that Berkley’s husband was a nephrologist. Boling said she believed the congresswoman’s contention that she was acting in the best interests of her constituents.

Alfonso Gonzalez, another supporter, said the investigation could end up being beneficial to the campaign.

“Berkley has always been on the side of the middle-class workers and veterans,” said Gonzalez, a cook at Paris Las Vegas. “I don’t think the investigation will harm her. In fact, maybe people will take a closer look at her as a candidate because of this and they will see all the good she has done.”

Berkley continues to use a strategy against Heller, now her opponent for Senate, that has been popular among Democrats this election season. In 2011, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, proposed a budget that would have shifted Medicare beneficiaries to private insurance plans with the help of federal subsidies. Heller voted for the plan both as a representative and later in the Senate, after being appointed to the seat vacated by John Ensign., which analyzes claims by politicians and their campaigns, includes the Democrats’ repeated claims that the plan would “end” or “essentially end” Medicare among its “Whoppers of 2011.”

The plan, which has since been altered by Ryan, “would have continued the present Medicare system indefinitely for those now getting benefits, and also for all those who reach age 65 during the next decade,” noted.

Yet, in a Berkley campaign ad released this week, the voiceover states, “Heller voted twice to end Medicare as we know it,” while the text in the ad simply read: “Dean Heller voted twice to end Medicare.”

Heller released his own ad this week that quotes The New York Times story and accuses Berkley of “advocating policies for financial gain.”

Berkley and Dunson also criticized Heller for his 2011 vote on a House budget bill that included an item on a housing program for veterans.

“He voted to gut funding for the housing voucher program that got America’s heroes, Nevada’s veterans, off the streets and put a roof over their heads,” Berkley told the crowd.

However, notes the item kept current funding but declined to add $75 million to the program, as had been done in three previous budget years. Republicans have pointed out the current allotment of vouchers was not exhausted.

As the ads released in the wake of the House Ethics Committee decision indicate, Heller most likely will try to keep reminding voters of the questions of impropriety while Berkley will try to refocus attention on issues such as job creation.

“This is an easy attack for (Heller),” Berkley said of the ethics investigation. “But I am absolutely convinced that at the end of the day, no matter how many commercials they run, the people of Nevada know who has been on their side year after year and will be on their side in the U.S. Senate.”

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