Friday, March 23, 2012 | 11:48 a.m.
The House Committee on Ethics announced today it is launching a inquiry into Rep. Shelley Berkley's actions.
The committee does not disclose what it is probing, but it appears to be related to the congresswoman’s past advocacy for Medicare coverage of kidney care that her husband, a kidney doctor, stood to benefit from. Word of the probe, which committee leaders stressed was not a determination of any ethics violation, nonetheless threatens to complicate Berkley’s Senate bid against Republican Sen. Dean Heller.
Berkley has come under fire from Heller’s supporters, as well as the independent watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, for actions first outlined in a New York Times report last year, which detailed how Berkley had urged lawmakers and government agencies to sustain Medicare funding for kidney dialysis and transplants.
Berkley’s husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a partner in a nephrology firm that has the only contract to provide such services at University Medical Center.
The probe originated with a complaint the Nevada Republican Party sent to the Office of Congressional Ethics last fall, which referred the matter to the House Ethics Committee on Feb. 9, according to the statement this morning from the committee. The Nevada GOP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Berkley, who has defended her motivations as those of a representative looking out for the best interests of her constituents, maintained that stance today. A spokeswoman for Berkley’s campaign appeared to suggest the complaint was politically motivated.
“The Nevada Republican Party filed a complaint against Congresswoman Berkley. As the committee reviews this complaint, they will determine that Congresswoman Shelley Berkley’s only concern is for the well being of Nevada’s patients,” Berkley campaign manager Jessica Mackler said in a statement. “That’s why she fought against out-of-state Washington bureaucrats from restricting patients’ access to care and why she joined fellow Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller to stop Nevada’s only kidney transplant program from being shut down, which would have denied life saving treatment to hundreds of Nevadans.”
Berkley joined the rest of the Nevada House delegation in arguing against reducing compensation rates for dialysis treatments or curtailing reimbursements for kidney transplants.
CREW's report notes Berkley is the single-largest career recipient of campaign funds from the Renal Physicians Association, where Lerner is member of the political action committee board.
Those associations were enough that the group gave Berkley a “dishonorable mention” in its report of the 19 “Most Corrupt” lawmakers in Congress last year.
The contract between Lehrner’s firm and UMC is worth a reported $738,000. Kidney transplants are one of 11 medical services outlined under the terms of service between the firm and the hospital.
According to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, Lehrner’s firm performed 127 kidney transplants at UMC between July 2008 and June 2011. The firm’s contract was renewed, at a 25 percent increase, in late 2010. Lehrner has a 9.09 percent ownership stake in the firm.
At the time Berkley took up the cause of kidney care under question, the wait list for kidney care was long and services were in need of improvement; reports from the time also show UMC officials approached her, along with the rest of the delegation, to use their federal influence to keep Medicare payments flowing.
Berkley has urged for more or sustained Medicare coverage of other medical services as well, not just kidneys. But she admitted to the Las Vegas Review-Journal last fall, after these allegations surfaced, that she should have done more to disclose her personal relationship with a potential beneficiary of the policies she was pursuing.
Now the real question is whether voters will believe, as she wants them to, that her heart was in the right place.
“Obviously, it’s not good. This is something they had hoped would go away, but obviously the outside ethics investigators found cause to refer it,” said UNLV political science professor David Damore. “This allows for people to speculate; it distracts from the message that she wants to get out...and it gives Heller more fodder, because this won’t be resolved before the June primaries.”
The committee said today they will announce how they intend to proceed by July 9.