The Las Vegas Review-Journal says Embattled Congresswoman Shelley Berkley Should Not Miscalculate Importance of Ethics Probe. Wishful thinking on behalf of Democratic partisans has caused a minority to say the House Ethics Committee’s decision to move forward with a formal investigation of Rep. Shelley Berkley’s ethics won’t affect her race for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
I’m convinced it will.
Oh, it won’t change the vote of anyone who already has decided to vote for her. And it will only emphasize the set-in-stone decisions of those already supporting Republican Sen. Dean Heller. Partisans won’t change their minds.
But those undecided and nonpartisan voters are going to have to decide whether it’s an issue for them and the airwaves will be flooded with Republican ads damning Berkley’s ethics. Heller started his Monday, even before the House announced it was going to investigate further.
Then, starting in August, Republicans are poised to begin a massive media buy that also will dwell on rank-sounding advice Berkley gave in 1996, trying to show a pattern of ethical problems in a then-and-now punch. It won’t be pretty.
Many Nevadans have forgotten, or never knew, that Berkley, as a government affairs adviser, told her then-boss casino owner Sheldon Adelson that it would be smart to give favors to county commissioners, including Erin Kenny, who later admitted her votes were for sale.
Berkley also advised Adelson to give campaign donations to judges because they “tend to help those who helped them.”
When her advice became public in 1998, Berkley had insignificant GOP opposition, and those ethics issues didn’t stop her from winning in a heavily Democratic district.
The NRSC asked Nevada’s Secretary of State to confirm that embattled Congresswoman Shelley Berkley cannot be removed from the ballot, Jon Ralston at the Las Vegas Sun reports that Secretary Miller confirmed that she can’t be replaced. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has asked Secretary of State Ross Miller to confirm that Nevada law mandates Rep. Shelley Berkley must stay on the ballot even if she withdraws because of ethics problems. I see almost no chance that Berkley will get out of the race. But the very fact that the NRSC sent the letter shows just how far the GOP folks will go to keep this story alive from now until November. SOS Ross Miller says NRSC is right. Letter posted at right.
The editorial board at the Las Vegas Review-Journal writes that Berkley is a savvy politician who got caught trying to use her position to enrich her pocketbook. The Berkley spin machine tried to characterize Monday’s development as good news, welcoming a “full and fair investigation” that will “clear” the congresswoman. Apparently, they ran out of lipstick. Truth is, this is a major blow to the Berkley campaign. Nor can this be dismissed as a partisan smear. None of the five Democrats on the 10-member ethics panel dissented. And USA Today reports that the committee’s action is somewhat rare, given that five of the last six cases the independent Office of Congressional Ethics has forwarded to the House panel have ended there without further investigation. … Rep. Berkley insists she did nothing wrong and was only fighting for her Nevada constituents. Fine. But it’s hard to believe someone as savvy as Rep. Berkley could get herself into this mess, particularly as she laid the groundwork for a Senate run.
The Review-Journal writes that yesterday Berkley doubled-down on her job-killing healthcare law.Wednesday’s vote to repeal the new health care overhaul enabled Nevada’s U.S. House members to reaffirm their positions on the controversial law in advance of their fall campaigns. … the House vote teed up political attacks from both sides. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., moved to tie Berkley tighter to the health care law that is unpopular with many Nevadans. “Middle-class Nevadans just can’t afford Shelley Berkley and her lockstep support for President Obama and Nancy Pelosi,” Heller’s campaign spokeswoman Chandler Smith said.
The WFB Gives Berkley Defense Five Pinocchios. The Nevada Democratic Senate candidate accused of steering government funds toward her husband’s dialysis practice has resorted to misleading advertisements to spin information about a newly launched ethics probe.
Shelley Berkley released a major ad push to combat the notion that she used her influence in Congress to steer Medicare funds to her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, who heads a medical PAC that has donated to Berkley’s campaign.
“How about the truth, [GOP nominee] Dean Heller,” Berkley’s first ad begins, before portraying the ethics complaint that helped spur the House investigation as a politically motivated attack.
“The complaint against Shelley Berkley was filed by the Republican Party,” the announcer continues.
The ad neglects to mention that the House Ethics Committee approved the investigation unanimously.
“The bipartisan House Ethics Committee has voted unanimously to proceed with a full-scale investigation into whether Rep. Shelley Berkley used her position in Congress to benefit her husband’s medical practice,” the Reno Gazette Journal reported on Monday.
The ethics probe has caused alarm for national Democrats hoping to preserve a thin majority in the Senate as they face a number of tossup races. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee provided Berkley with $2.3 million to broadcast the ad statewide.
Reaffirms Her Support For ObamaCare’s Massive Tax Increase & Medicare Cuts
WASHINGTON — Two years ago liberal U.S. Congresswoman Shelley Berkley – at the urging of Nancy Pelosi – voted for President Obama’s healthcare bill which the Supreme Court recently confirmed was a massive tax increase on the American people. Today, the embattled Congresswoman reaffirmed her support of this job-killing law by voting against its repeal.
According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), ObamaCare will cut $500 billion from Medicare, raise taxes by over $500 billion and force every American to purchase health insurance.
Notably, the Wall Street Journal has written that ObamaCare is the largest tax increase in history on the middle class.
- “It is now undeniable that Mr. Obama has imposed the largest tax increase in history on the middle class. Individuals who don’t buy insurance will have to pay several hundred dollars, depending on income. The Congressional Budget Office says that 76% of those who pay the mandate tax will make less than 500% of the federal poverty level, estimated to be $24,000 for a family of four in 2016. That means 76% of the payers will earn less than $120,000 a year.” (Editorial, “It’s Up To The Voters Now,” The Wall Street Journal, 6/28/12)
“Not only did Shelley Berkley vote for ObamaCare, but today she reaffirmed her support for what is the largest tax increase ever on the middle class,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spokesman Jahan Wilcox. “This election will be a clear contrast between Congresswoman Berkley and her support for President Obama’s big government agenda and Senator Heller who will continue to support pro-growth, pro-jobs initiatives that will get Nevada working again.”
Berkley Voted For The Health Care Reform Law. (H.R. 3590, CQ Vote #165: Motion agreed to, thus clearing the bill for the president, by a vote of 219-212: R 0-178; D 219-34, 3/21/10, Berkley Voted Yea)
Berkley Proudly Voted Against A Full Repeal ObamaCare (H.R. 6079, CQ Vote 460: Passed 224-185, Berkley Voted Nay)
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has sent a letter to Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller clarifying the Nevada Election Code regarding vacancies in major party nominations.
I don’t believe embattled Congresswoman Shelley Berkley has any intention of withdrawing from the Senate race but it’s clear from this letter the NRSC wants to be prepared for any eventuality.
Full letter below:
(Las Vegas, NV) — A new ad released by Heller for Senate this week documents seven-term Congresswoman Shelley Berkley’s established pattern of using her office for personal gain. To view the ad, click here.
1) Claim: “An independent watchdog group has named Congresswoman Shelley Berkley one of the most corrupt members of Congress.”
Documentation: “The line between political cause and personal gain is fuzzy for Rep. Shelley Berkley.”
Citation: CREW’s Most Corrupt Report,” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, 2011
Full report: http://www.citizensforethics.org/page/-/PDFs/Reports/Most%20Corrupt%20Reports/Berkley%2C%20Shelley.pdf?nocdn=1
See also: Press release, “Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) Earns Dishonorable Mention in CREW’s Annual Most Corrupt Report,” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, September 19, 2011)
2) Claim: “Berkley pushed legislation and twisted the arms of federal regulators, advocating policies for financial gain…”
Documentation: “Ms. Berkley’s actions were among a series over the last five years in which she pushed legislation or twisted the arms of federal regulators to pursue an agenda that is aligned with the business interests of her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner.”
Citation: Eric Lipton, “A Congresswoman’s Cause Is Often Her Husband’s Gain,” New York Times, September 5, 2011
3) Claim: “saving her husband’s industry millions…an estimated $250 million annually …”
Documentation: “This year, after Medicaid threatened to cut 3.1 percent of the money for dialysis — to save an estimated $250 million annually — Ms. Berkley led an effort in the House to oppose the cut. Less than a month later, the agency reversed its position, winning Ms. Berkley a personal thanks from industry leaders in press releases and new campaign donations.”
Citation: Eric Lipton, “A Congresswoman’s Cause Is Often Her Husband’s Gain,” New York Times, September 5, 2011
4) Claim: “Shelley Berkley took care of herself, and she got caught.”
Documentation: “This is a very serious conflict of interest,” said James A. Thurber, a former Congressional aide who has helped revise ethics rules and is now director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “There is an official use of power here to help him and the family — and I think that is unethical.”
Citation: Eric Lipton, “A Congresswoman’s Cause Is Often Her Husband’s Gain,” New York Times, September 5, 2011
5) Claim: Berkley: “We deserve better”
Citation: “Congresswoman Shelley Berkley Extended,” YouTube, Aug. 8, 2011
Ø On Monday, June 9, 2012, the House Ethics Committee announced plans to establish a subcommittee to continue its investigation into Shelley Berkley’s behavior. (Press Release, “Statement of the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Committee on Ethics Regarding Representative Shelley Berkley,” July 9, 2012)
News of Shelley Berkley’s questionable ethics resonated in Nevada news outlets.
Ø “But what we did not know for certain until Eric Lipton’s devastating and probing piece is just how committed the congresswoman has been to her husband’s cause…CREW’s chief, Melanie Sloan, told me Berkley should have ‘stayed out of it.’” (Jon Ralston, “The Times’ piece spells trouble for Berkley,” Las Vegas Sun September 7, 2011)
Ø “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. (Karoun Demirjian, Rep. Shelley Berkley facing questions about legislation that benefitted husband’s practice, Las Vegas Sun, September 6, 2011)
Complete documents available:
New York Times: A Congresswoman’s Cause Is Often Her Husband’s Gain
CREW (Entry page): “CREW’s Most Corrupt Report,” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, 2011
CREW (Full Report): DISHONORABLE MENTION: REPRESENTATIVE SHELLEY BERKLEY
CREW (Press Release): Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) Earns Dishonorable Mention in CREW’s Annual Most Corrupt Report
Las Vegas Sun: The Times’ piece spells trouble for Berkley
Las Vegas Sun: Rep. Shelley Berkley facing questions about legislation that benefitted husband’s practice
New York Times
September 5, 2011
A Congresswoman’s Cause Is Often Her Husband’s Gain
By ERIC LIPTON
LAS VEGAS — At the University Medical Center here, alarms were set off three years ago — kidney transplants were failing at unusually high rates, and some patients were even dying.
Federal regulators moved to shut down the kidney transplant program, but the proposed penalty brought a rebuke from Representative Shelley Berkley, Democrat of Nevada, who helped lead a successful effort to get the officials from Washington to back down.
In pleading for a reprieve, Ms. Berkley and other members of Nevada’s Congressional delegation said they were acting on behalf of the state’s families, citing dire health consequences if the program was halted. But the congresswoman’s efforts also benefited her husband, a physician whose nephrology practice directs medical services at the hospital’s kidney care department — an arrangement that expanded after her intervention and is now reflected in a $738,000-a-year contract with the hospital.
Ms. Berkley’s actions were among a series over the last five years in which she pushed legislation or twisted the arms of federal regulators to pursue an agenda that is aligned with the business interests of her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner. In addition to the hospital contract, he 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.
Dr. Lehrner helped build a political action committee that has regularly turned to Ms. Berkley to champion its causes. She has co-sponsored at least five House bills that would expand federal reimbursements or other assistance for kidney care, written letters to regulators to block enforcing rules or ease the flow of money to kidney care centers and appeared regularly at fund-raising events sponsored by a professional organization her husband has helped run.
“This is a very serious conflict of interest,” said James A. Thurber, a former Congressional aide who has helped revise ethics rules and is now director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “There is an official use of power here to help him and the family — and I think that is unethical.”
Ms. Berkley declined an interview request for this article. But in a statement, she said she was an advocate for a broad range of health care causes and had never acted specifically to help her husband’s practice.
“I won’t stop fighting to give Nevadans access to affordable health care just because my husband is a doctor, just like I won’t stop standing up for veterans because my father served in World War II,” she said.
Dr. Lehrner, though, said he was unabashed about pressing his wife on issues that were important to his practice.
“She is definitely aware of my positions, and the R.P.A.’s positions,” he said in an interview, referring to the Renal Physicians Association, the trade group he has helped run. “We talk politics all the time. We talk medicine.”
Congressional ethics rules are murky — lawmakers can take steps that financially benefit a spouse as long as the benefit is broadly available and there is no “improper exercise of official influence.” Lobbying of lawmakers by their spouses is prohibited, but there is no ban on spouses’ informally acting as industry advocates, like Dr. Lehrner, who is not a registered lobbyist.
The intermingling of Ms. Berkley’s public and private life, though, is striking even among her peers on Capitol Hill, and surfaced in an examination by The New York Times of how lawmakers forge particularly close ties to industries with an agenda in Washington.
As Ms. Berkley has pushed the cause of kidney care in Congress, her husband’s practice has boomed, thanks in part to his joint ownership of dialysis centers with DaVita, a giant in the industry and one of Ms. Berkley’s biggest campaign contributors. She is one of the richest members of Congress, as she or her husband hold assets valued from $7 million to $23 million, according to her most recent financial disclosure forms.
Now running for the Senate seat held by John Ensign until his resignation this spring amid an ethics scandal, Ms. Berkley drives around Nevada in a white Ford Fusion (“United States Congresswoman 1” reads her license plate, referring to her Congressional district).
She often talks about her modest upbringing, in which she ate at Taco Bell while scraping by as a cocktail waitress at a casino resort hotel here. She also frequently mentions her husband’s work — she delivered a “certificate of Congressional recognition” at the ribbon cutting of his latest dialysis center last year — and cites his experiences as evidence for why Congress must act to change federal laws or policy.
“I’m sure he didn’t think in medical school that in his 60s he still would be taking calls on the weekends, but that’s the reality of the situation when you don’t have enough nephrologists to care for the population that you’re living in,” Ms. Berkley said at a House hearing in 2009, at which she pushed for higher federal reimbursements for medical specialists like her husband.
Concerns About Care
Shawn Rowlett, 40, showed up at the University Medical Center with his wife, pale and weak, four days after he had been discharged from the hospital’s transplant center with a new kidney in February 2008. But now he was hemorrhaging, medical records show.
After seeing the hospital’s chief transplant surgeon, Mr. Rowlett was left in the emergency room for five hours before being admitted, according to his wife, Dionne Rowlett. He died less than two hours later, court records show.
“The care was just horrible,” Ms. Rowlett said in a recent interview, shortly after the hospital settled a malpractice suit for $77,500 — the maximum amount allowed in Nevada because of a cap on malpractice payments from public hospitals. (Dr. Lehrner and his practice were not named in the lawsuit.)
Mr. Rowlett’s death and four recent others in the first year after the surgery, as well as 10 transplant failures, were part of a troubling pattern — the death and failure rates were more than twice the expected level. That led the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to issue an order to revoke the certification for the hospital’s transplant program — which does about 50 transplants a year — and cut off Medicare financing, effectively shutting the program down.
Brian G. Brannman, the medical center’s chief executive, acknowledged that the program was in disarray back then. In a recent interview, he said the hospital was mostly to blame, as its lone transplant surgeon had not been provided with a sufficient support system. Federal regulators also questioned the qualifications of the physician whom Dr. Lehrner and his partners had assigned to help screen transplant patients, leading the hospital to acknowledge in writing that he “was not formally trained in transplantation.”
Desperate for a second chance, hospital officials appealed to members of the Nevada Congressional delegation. Ms. Berkley sent a letter, signed by two other lawmakers, warning that cutting off money would “jeopardize the health of hundreds” of constituents. She and the other lawmakers helped set up a series of conference calls between hospital and Medicare officials.
Soon after, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for the first time, agreed to override provisions that would have required decertifying the program. In exchange, the hospital promised to remedy the problems.
“I spoke to the head of C.M.S. yesterday,” Ms. Berkley told local television reporters in announcing the breakthrough. “When I got off the phone, I had a good-faith belief that we were going to come up with a compromise that works for everybody.”
Kerry Weems, then the agency’s acting administrator, said he recalled speaking with Ms. Berkley and Jon Porter, then a Republican House member from Nevada, about the program. Mr. Weems could not recall if Ms. Berkley mentioned her husband’s ties to the hospital. But he said he would have approved the agreement anyway.
“You want to find a way to ‘yes’ — not based on any individual stake that a Congress person might have,” said Mr. Weems, who recently left the agency. “But this really was the only transplant center in Nevada.”
Part of the deal involved significantly expanding the staff of kidney specialists. The hospital turned to Ms. Berkley’s husband to recruit two transplant nephrologists, who, Mr. Brannman said, work more directly with the hospital’s new transplant surgeon.
Mr. Brannman said the selection of Dr. Lehrner’s practice — it was the sole bidder for the contract renewed in December 2010, which increased annual fees by 25 percent — had nothing to do with Ms. Berkley, whom he said he did not know well. The various staffing changes have significantly improved the transplant program’s performance in recent years, according to Mr. Brannman and federal officials.
Jessica Mackler, Ms. Berkley’s campaign manager, said the congresswoman had no conflict of interest when she intervened, because the money the hospital uses to pay her husband does not directly come from the federal government, and other members of the state’s Congressional delegation were involved in the effort to save the transplant program.
“There really is no issue here,” Ms. Mackler said.
But Mr. Reems, the former Medicare official, is not so sure, given Ms. Berkley’s record of interventions on kidney care issues.
“You never want questions being raised,” he said, “and that means you need to try to avoid any move that makes you seem anything less than an impartial public servant.”
At the annual conference of the Renal Physicians Association in Austin, Tex., in 2008, Dr. Lehrner showed a slide of a smiley-faced doctor with a screw being forced into his mouth, and then ticked off a list of steps the group could take to fight cost control efforts in Washington.
“We have been screwed by our policy makers for 20 years,” he told the crowd. “Only you can prevent the destruction of our profession.”
The doctors, he said, could donate money directly to members of Congress, volunteer on their campaigns, contribute to the political action committee that he had helped build at the Renal Physicians Association and travel to Washington to personally appeal to lawmakers, as he himself does.
Dr. Lehrner added one more option to the list. “Marry an elected official,” he said, evoking laughter.
He may have been joking, but Ms. Berkley, 60, who was first elected in 1998 — a year before she and Dr. Lehrner married — has been largely sympathetic to the doctors’ cause.
The Medicare system spends an estimated $27 billion a year, or about 6 percent of overall Medicare spending, to help some of the approximately 550,000 Americans who have so-called end-stage kidney disease. It is the only chronic disease in which the most severely ill patients get nearly free care, regardless of age.
But Congress and federal regulators, alarmed over the surging costs, have sought to control spending in recent years, provoking protests from Dr. Lehrner and the physicians’ association, as well as the drug companies and dialysis operators that dominate the industry.
When Dr. Lehrner assumed a series of leadership roles at the renal physicians group, Ms. Berkley’s agenda in Washington started to overlap with her husband’s. He became the single biggest contributor to the association’s political action committee, while also serving as its chairman. And she has received the largest share of its contributions, totaling $7,000 since 2007. Over all, kidney care doctors, companies and lobbyists have donated at least $140,000 to Ms. Berkley’s Congressional campaigns.
Dr. Lehrner’s flourishing practice now includes 21 doctors who work out of seven offices in the Las Vegas area, as well as 11 dialysis centers, 10 of them run in a joint venture, started in 2003, with DaVita. He is a paid national speaker for and has received research grants from Amgen, a major supplier of drugs to dialysis centers.
The activities of these interest groups are closely aligned at times.
In early February 2008, for example, Ms. Berkley received a series of campaign contributions, first $1,000 from Amgen, then $2,000 from Kidney Care Partners, a trade group backed by Amgen and DaVita, then $3,000 from DaVita, and then $1,000 from Dr. Lehrner’s group, the Renal Physicians.
The day that two of those checks were delivered, Ms. Berkley sent a letter to Representative Pete Stark, Democrat of California, then chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee with jurisdiction over Medicare, warning him to move carefully in considering changes in compensating doctors who provided dialysis treatments. Echoing concerns raised by the industry, the congresswoman said she worried that patient access to care could be affected.
“While I support initiatives to improve quality and efficiency in Medicare, I do not believe that these efficiencies should come at the cost of patient well being,” Ms. Berkley wrote, without mentioning her husband’s interest in the matter.
Regulators moved ahead with the new reimbursement system, although it was adjusted in a way that the dialysis and drug companies ultimately embraced. This year, after Medicaid threatened to cut 3.1 percent of the money for dialysis — to save an estimated $250 million annually — Ms. Berkley led an effort in the House to oppose the cut.
Less than a month later, the agency reversed its position, winning Ms. Berkley a personal thanks from industry leaders in press releases and new campaign donations.
“She is highly knowledgeable about this complicated and critical area of health care that impacts millions of Americans,” Skip Thurman, a DaVita spokesman said in a written statement, of the company’s donations — which have accelerated as Ms. Berkley runs for the Senate. “The kidney community’s support of her is entirely appropriate.”
CREW’s Most Corrupt Report
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington
Shelley Berkley (D-NV) Dishonorable Mention
The line between political cause and personal financial gain is fuzzy for Rep. Shelley Berkley.
The congresswoman vocally advocates for Washington policies that financially benefit her kidney surgeon husband. In turn, she has become a major recipient of campaign donations from those in the kidney care industry.
Rep. Berkley is a seven-term member of Congress, representing Nevada’s 1st congressional district.
CREW: Full Report
DISHONORABLE MENTION: REPRESENTATIVE SHELLEY BERKLEY
Full report attached to this email and available here.
CREW: Press Release
Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) Earns Dishonorable Mention in CREW’s Annual Most Corrupt Report
September 19, 2011
Washington, D.C. –The line between political cause and personal financial gain is fuzzy for Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV). The congresswoman vocally advocates for Washington policies that financially benefit her kidney surgeon husband. In turn, she has become a major recipient of campaign donations from those in the kidney care industry. It’s no wonder Rep. Shelly Berkley has earned a dishonorable mention in Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s (CREW) annual Most Corrupt Members of Congress Report. Click here to read the full report on Rep. Berkley.
“While it is understandable why a Nevada congresswoman would fight to save the only transplant center in the state, Rep. Berkley should have been clear about her husband’s position at the hospital,” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan.
Rep. Berkley is married to Dr. Larry Lehrner, a surgeon and a prominent voice within the Renal Physicians Association, an industry trade group. In 2008, federal officials were set to shut down kidney transplant operations at Universal Medical Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, after a string of failed kidney transplants and patient deaths. Rep. Berkley led a successful charge to keep the center – where her husband directs the kidney care department – open. Thanks to her efforts, her husband’s practice now enjoys a $738,000 per year federal contract.
A New York Times exposé revealed Rep. Berkley has co-sponsored at least five House bills to expand federal support for kidney care. She also wrote a letter to Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), then-chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee with jurisdiction over Medicare, to dissuade him from changing compensation for doctors providing dialysis, neglecting to mention her husband’s interests. Dr. Lehrner, for his part, has openly joked “Marry[ing] and elected official” has been a boon to his practice.
“House conflict-of-interest rules warn members to avoid taking action on any matter that may affect their financial interests. Rep. Berkley’s advocacy for kidney doctors crosses this line.”
This is the 7th edition of the CREW’S Most Corrupt Report, an annual look at a bipartisan collection of Washington’s worst. This year’s list includes seven Democrats, and 12 Republicans. Five are repeat offenders. Since 2005, CREW has named 70 members of Congress to the list, 32 of whom are no longer in office.
Las Vegas Sun
The Times’ piece spells trouble for Berkley
Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011
There are always three barometers of any story damaging to a political figure: The substance of the piece, the ensuing damage control effort (which either ameliorates or exacerbates) and the political fallout.
What we know for certain is that Rep. Shelley Berkley knew this week’s New York Times investigative piece detailing her advocacy on issues involving her husband would not exactly enhance her chances of winning a U.S. Senate seat. What we also know for certain is that Berkley has never hidden the influence her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, has on her positions on health care — she mentions his strong views all the time. But what we did not know for certain until Eric Lipton’s devastating and probing piece is just how committed the congresswoman has been to her husband’s cause — or as the Times headline put it, “A Congresswoman’s Cause Is Often Her Husband’s Gain.”
(The piece is here.)
It might be easier to start with what this story is not about: Whether Berkley or the rest of the delegation should have intervened to try to save University Medical Center’s kidney transplant program. Of course they should have. (This is an issue near and dear to my heart, having had a kidney transplant and having wonderful care the last quarter-century — knocking on wood — from one of Lehrner’s partners, Dr. Marvin Bernstein.)
When Berkley and others, including her opponent, then-Rep. Dean Heller, intervened, it was to save a troubled program and when her husband bid on the contract to beef up the transplant department, he was, as the Times reported, the only bidder.
Should Berkley have let Heller or then-Rep. Jon Porter take the lead in trying to save the program, and even stayed out of it? Maybe. But then is she not doing her job?
The other part of Lipton’s story focuses on Lehrner’s political advocacy and his often-flip references to his marriage to Berkley — indeed, the couple’s public references, joking may they be, to their symbiosis has only made this worse.
This paragraph, too, showed perhaps too much symbiosis:
“When Dr. Lehrer assumed a series of leadership roles at the renal physicians group, Ms. Berkley’s agenda in Washington started to overlap with her husband’s. He became the single biggest contributor to the association’s political action committee, while also serving as its chairman. And she has received the largest share of its contributions, totaling $7,000 since 2007. Over all, kidney care doctors, companies and lobbyists have donated at least $140,000 to Ms. Berkley’s congressional campaigns.”
And then there was the propinquity with campaign contributions from the renal physicians PAC and a letter Berkley sent to Pete Stark, her Democratic colleague then chairing a key Ways and Means subcommittee. In the missive, she questioned “an untested bundled payment system” for dialysis patients — arguably one that could affect patient access but also her husband’s (and thus her) bottom line. And earlier this year, she wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services boss Donald Berwick, a missive that could be interpreted as trying to preserve care for patients but also one that could benefit her husband’s practice.
Protecting patients and helping her husband’s business. How does she do one without doing the other? Good question.
But that’s where the damage control comes in — or didn’t.
“I won’t stop fighting to give Nevadans access to affordable health care just because my husband is a doctor, just like I won’t stop standing up for veterans because my father served in World War II,” Berkley said in a statement.
What? Is this a parody? Equating her husband’s business that benefited from her legislation with her father being a war veteran? You must be joking.
Team Berkley also responded with a catalog of articles that it said made the case that the Times “ignored crucial facts in order to drive a misleading narrative about Congresswoman Shelley Berkley’s efforts to improve care for sick patients in Nevada.”
That is, that Berkley was only one member of an activist delegation trying to help UMC and that she was cleared by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. (The latter was quickly debunked when CREW’s chief, Melanie Sloan, told me Berkley should have “stayed out of it.”
I was also astounded that the ever-voluble Berkley refused to comment to the Times while her husband did, perhaps not helping the cause with his flippant quotes. It doesn’t matter if she is being unfairly maligned, as she argues. If so, her argument for silence is that the Times was out to get her. Really?
Berkley can garner testimonials from everyone in sight — Harry Reid says he still supports her! But the ads here write themselves, and we will find out next year if the congresswoman’s husband’s gain is actually her loss come November 2012.
Las Vegas Sun
Rep. Shelley Berkley facing questions about legislation that benefitted husband’s practice
By Karoun Demirjian (contact)
Published Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011 | 7:08 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 won’t stop standing up for veterans because my father served in World War II.”
From Roll Call:
Rep. Shelley Berkley in the best possible light, even as the case casts a public cloud over the Nevada Democrat’s Senate bid.
The race is taking place in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) backyard, and it could prove decisive to his party’s ability to keep its hold on a chamber likely to be divided by one or two seats.
When asked by reporters Tuesday whether the investigation affects Berkley’s chances to win, Reid said, “No, I really don’t think so.”
Berkley is challenging appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R) in a presidential battleground state, and Democratic strategists said the investigation does little to change the fundamental dynamics of the race. But Nevada Republican strategists believe the committee’s decision on Monday may have irreparably damaged Berkley’s outreach to voters beyond her Las Vegas district — swing voters that will ultimately decide the election.
Allegations of wrongdoing have swirled around Berkley since the New York Times in September detailed her push to save a kidney transplant program at a hospital where her physician husband had a lucrative contract and preserve reimbursements for other kidney-care services. The story prompted the Nevada Republican Party to ask the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics to review Berkley’s actions.
The issue has already been highlighted to voters via TV ads across the state. American Crossroads, a GOP-aligned super PAC, launched a significant ad buy last month to broadcast the issue. The Berkley campaign immediately responded with an ad of its own, a sign the campaign has been prepared for these developments for some time.
The latest news of a formal ethics investigation will no doubt be played up even more in ads up until Election Day.
In Nevada, Jon Ralston at the Las Vegas Sun writes that he has serious questions about embattled Congresswomen Shelley Berkley’s viability and that she’ll need a new strategy. The pain of being buried alive must be excruciating, but there are those who have long considered Berkley a Dead Woman Walking. Even if she were still viable — and I now have serious questions about whether she can win this race — Berkley’s campaign, which has all but cocooned her for much of this race and foolishly not bivouacked in critical Washoe County, needs a new strategy. And fast. … Berkley takes it as an article of faith that people know her husband is a doctor, that they know she would never, ever behave unethically, that she loves her work in D.C. too much to compromise herself. But many, many don’t. She is relatively unknown, especially in the key battleground of Washoe, and this will be how she is defined, thanks to Heller and Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity and other ill-wishers.
- Meanwhile, Jon Ralston tweets that Senator Heller is up with a new ad pounding the ethically challenged Congresswoman. @SenDeanHeller is up w/an ad pounding @RepBerkley on ethics, produced before House Ethics acted: http://youtu.be/vlD1Lc8rR9g #nvsen
- Additionally, the Las Vegas Sun reports that Berkley’s ethics woes creates even a bigger obstacle for her in Washoe County. Berkley’s defense picks up on an image that she has long tried to portray in Southern Nevada: that she is a congresswoman whose first concern, always, is constituent service. Unfortunately for Berkley, the message may not carry as well in the parts of the state she needs to win this Senate election. “I don’t think anybody in the north’s going to buy this,” Eric Herzik said. “In rural Nevada, there’s an automatic bias against her … and now this is the key point of information about her. I just think that makes an uphill climb even harder.”
- Finally, Steve Sebelius at the Las Vegas Review-Journal writes that Berkley’s response to her ethics investigation was comically untrue. The fact that – rather than dismiss the matter as unfounded – the bipartisan committee decided to investigate a Republican-filed complaint that Berkley took actions to benefit her husband’s medical practice shows some members may believe there’s fire under all that smoke. … The first line of the Berkley campaign’s prepared statement in response to the action was almost comically untrue: “We are pleased with the committee’s decision to conduct a full and fair investigation, which will ensure all the facts are reviewed,” said campaign manager Jessica Mackler.
WHAT THEY ARE SAYING NATIONALLY …
POLITICO: In a major blow to Rep. Shelley Berkley’s Senate campaign, the House Ethics Committee announced Monday that it will formally investigate the Nevada Democrat over allegations she used her office to aid her husband’s medical practice. … Behind the scenes, Democrats were less optimistic. Monday’s announcement will allow the GOP to pummel Berkley as “under investigation” and “ethically challenged” in every TV ad until Election Day, since it will be virtually impossible for the Ethics Committee to complete its work by then, at least based on recent history. “This is going to make it real, real tough,” admitted one top Senate Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I am not sure she can overcome it.” (John Bresnahan, Shelley Berkley ethics case shakes up Nevada race, Politico, 7/9/12)
NEW YORK TIMES: Representative Shelley Berkley’s bid for a Senate seat in Nevada will most likely remain under an ethics cloud through Election Day after the House ethics committee disclosed Monday that it had appointed a formal investigative panel to look into allegations that she used her office to help her husband’s medical practice. (Eric Lipton, Panel Seated in Ethics Inquiry Into Nevada Lawmaker, New York Times, 7/9/12)
WASHINGTON POST: The House Ethics Committee has voted unanimously to launch a formal investigation into allegations that Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) used her position to benefit the financial interests of her husband — a blow to her candidacy in one of the nation’s most competitive Senate contests. (Ed O’Keefe, Shelley Berkley faces formal ethics investigation, Washington Post, 7/9/12)
USA TODAY: The House Ethics Committee disclosed Monday a unanimous decision to open an investigation into whether Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., used her office to benefit her physician husband’s financial interests. … Jennifer Duffy, an elections analyst for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, expects ethics to remain an issue. “The Berkley campaign seems to believe this is not a big deal, but the Ethics Committee clearly thinks it is,” Duffy said. “It’s very much on the table for this race.” (Susan Davis, Rep. Shelley Berkley will face House ethics panel probe, USA Today, 7/9/11)
HOTLINE: While initial reports will delve once again into Berkley’s interest in the Las Vegas kidney center, Republicans familiar with the case pointed to a letter Berkley wrote to Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., then head of the Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees Medicare, urging him to use caution when revisiting compensation for dialysis providers. The letter, first reported by The New York Times, came the same day that Berkley received a number of campaign contributions from medical companies that deal with kidney dialysis. (Reid Wilson, Ethics Investigation Delivers a Blow to Berkley, National Journal Hotline, 7/9/12)
ROLL CALL: The Berkley campaign awoke this morning to front-page stories in both the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Reno Gazette-Journal — which cover the two vital population centers in the state — detailing the investigation. (Kyle Trygstad, Nevada: Ethics Probe Clouds Tossup Senate Race, Roll Call, 7/10/12)
NEVADA’S FRONT PAGES …
WHAT THEY ARE SAYING IN NEVADA …
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL: Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, said the ethics probe is a blow to Berkley, giving Republicans stronger ammunition against her and probably keeping the matter open all the way to Election Day. “The issue stays alive through the campaign, and Republicans got a little bit more juice behind it with the unanimous vote” from five Democrats and five Republicans on the panel, Duffy said. “And they get to keep talking about it. And I think she’s more on the defensive now. In a race where everything counts, this is not something that Berkley needs hanging over her head. In a close race, everything matters.” (Steve Tetreault, House panel to investigate allegations against Berkley, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 7/10/11)
LAS VEGAS SUN: Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley was always going to have to face some tough music on the Senate campaign trail over allegations she used her seat in Congress to push for policies and programs that benefited her family’s bottom line. But the inquiry that stood at least a chance of being dismissed as a political witch hunt now ranks among the most serious investigations of alleged ethical offenses taking place this Congress. (Karoun Demirjian, Formal ethics investigation likely to dog Berkley for duration of Senate campaign, Las Vegas Sun, 7/10/12)
RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL: The bipartisan House Ethics Committee has voted unanimously to proceed with a full-scale investigation into whether Rep. Shelley Berkley used her position in Congress to benefit her husband’s medical practice. (Erin Kelly, House Ethics Committee appoints panel in Shelley Berkley Case, Reno Gazette-Journal, 7/9/12)
ASSOCIATED PRESS: The House Ethics Committee announced Monday that it had appointed a panel to investigate whether Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley used her position to protect her family’s financial interests, giving Republicans additional fodder to question her conduct leading up to November’s election for a Senate seat in a critical swing state. (Kevin Freking, Ethics Committee appoints panel in Berkley Case, Associated Press, 7/9/12)
STEVE SEBELIUS AT THE REVIEW-JOURNAL: [T]he fact that – rather than dismiss the matter as unfounded – the bipartisan committee decided to investigate a Republican-filed complaint that Berkley took actions to benefit her husband’s medical practice shows some members may believe there’s fire under all that smoke. … The first line of the Berkley campaign’s prepared statement in response to the action was almost comically untrue: “We are pleased with the committee’s decision to conduct a full and fair investigation, which will ensure all the facts are reviewed,” said campaign manager Jessica Mackler. (Steve Sebelius, The second-best news for Shelley Berkley?, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 7/10/12)
WHAT THEY ARE WATCHING IN NEVADA …
FOX LAS VEGAS: U.S. Rep. for Nevada Shelley Berkley is being investigated for possible ethics violations. A House ethics committee unanimously voted to investigate whether she used her office to personally help her and her husband. … FOX5 political analyst Mitch Fox said this certainly doesn’t help Berkley’s campaign for re-election, but there’s still a lot of time before voters hit the polls in November. (Elizabeth Watts, Berkley’s ethics investigation puts cloud on her campaign, KVVU-TV, 07/09/12)
ABC LAS VEGAS: The House Ethics Committee says it has appointed a panel to investigate whether Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley used her position to protect her family’s financial interests, giving Republicans additional fodder to question her conduct leading up to November’s election. (Molly Waldron, Ethics Committee appoints panel in Shelley Berkley case, KSNV-TV, 7/9/12)
CBS RENO: The House Ethics Committee says it has appointed a panel to investigate whether Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley used her position to protect her family’s financial interests, giving Republicans additional fodder to question her conduct leading up to November’s election. (Ethics Committee Appoints Panel in Berkley Case, KTVN-TV, 7/9/12)
In Nevada, where Rep. Shelley Berkley’s cause is often her husband’s gain, Politico reports that the House Committee on Ethics unanimously voted to more forward to a full investigation of Ms. Berkley’s conduct. In a major blow to Rep. Shelley Berkley’s Senate campaign, the House Ethics Committee announced Monday that it will formally investigate the Nevada Democrat over allegations she used her office to aid her husband’s medical practice. Berkley has denied any wrongdoing, but Monday’s announcement — which comes in the middle of Berkley’s challenge to GOP Sen. Dean Heller — could seriously shake up a Senate race that has national implications.
- Democrats privately tell Politico that they’re doubtful the embattled Congresswoman can overcome this scandal. Behind the scenes, Democrats were less optimistic. Monday’s announcement will allow the GOP to pummel Berkley as “under investigation” and “ethically challenged” in every TV ad until Election Day, since it will be virtually impossible for the Ethics Committee to complete its work by then, at least based on recent history. “This is going to make it real, real tough,” admitted one top Senate Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I am not sure she can overcome it.”
- Meanwhile, the National Journal’s Hotline reports that this is a major setback for Berkley’s campaign. There are setbacks that take a campaign by surprise, and there are setbacks for which a smart candidate can prepare. Rep. Shelley Berkley’s campaign saw a House Ethics Committee investigation coming from a mile away—but all the preparation in the world may not be enough to save the Nevada Democrat’s Senate campaign. … But the GOP’s attack ads virtually write themselves. While initial reports will delve once again into Berkley’s interest in the Las Vegas kidney center, Republicans familiar with the case pointed to a letter Berkley wrote to Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., then head of the Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees Medicare, urging him to use caution when revisiting compensation for dialysis providers. The letter, first reported by The New York Times, came the same day that Berkley received a number of campaign contributions from medical companies that deal with kidney dialysis.
- Additionally, KTNV-TV in Las Vegas began their evening newscast by reporting on Berkley’s ethics investigation. The House Ethics Committee says it has appointed a panel to investigate whether Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley used her position to protect her family’s financial interests, giving Republicans additional fodder to question her conduct leading up to November’s election.
- The NRSC sent out a release remi
- nding voters that Nevadans deserve a Senator who will fight for them. As the Reno Gazette-Journal reports: The decision spurred renewed interest in the line of attack. Minutes after the ethics committee announced its decision, the National Republican Senatorial Committee leapt into the fray with the following statement: “It speaks volumes that even Shelley Berkley’s Democrat colleagues unanimously voted to move forward investigating Berkley’s use of her office to enrich her and her husband,” Executive Director Rob Jesmer said. “Since Berkley entered the political arena, we’ve seen a long pattern of ethical questions surrounding her conduct. Nevadans deserve someone in the Senate who they can trust to work on their behalf and not someone — like Ms. Berkley — who puts her own financial and political interests first.”
- Finally here some tweets from some of the top reporters in the Silver State:
Ethics Panel Continues Berkley Probe – National Journal
WASHINGTON — National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Executive Director Rob Jesmer issued the following statement today regarding the House Ethics Committee’s unanimous decision to move forward in their investigation of Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley.
“It speaks volumes that even Shelley Berkley’s Democrat colleagues unanimously voted to move forward investigating Berkley’s use of her office to enrich her and her husband. Since Berkley entered the political arena we’ve seen a long pattern of ethical questions surrounding her conduct. Nevadans deserve someone in the Senate who they can trust to work on their behalf and not someone – like Ms. Berkley – who puts her own financial and political interests first.”
- On September 5, 2011, a front-page story in the New York Times uncovered a pattern of instances in which Congresswoman Berkley used her official office for apparent personal financial gain.
- On September 21, 2011, the Nevada Republican Party filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics outlining the allegations uncovered in the Times’ investigation. To view a copy of the complaint, click here.
- According to a letter released by the House Ethics Committee on February 9, 2012, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) reviewed the complaint and referred it forward to the full Committee for investigation. Had this complaint been “frivolous” as Berkley and her allies have long claimed, it would have been simply dismissed instead of returned to the full Committee for investigation.
- On June 29, 2012 the House of Representatives Committee on Ethics unanimously voted to establish an investigative subcommittee surrounding Rep. Shelley Berkley. Pursuant to the Committee’s action, the investigative subcommittee shall have jurisdiction to determine whether Representative Shelley Berkley violated the Code of Official Conduct or any law, rule, regulation, or other applicable standard of conduct in the performance of her duties or the discharge of her responsibilities, with respect to alleged communications and activities with or on behalf of entities in which Representative Berkley’s husband had a financial interest.
From the National Journal:
The House Ethics Committee said on Monday that it will launch a full-scale subcommittee investigation into whether efforts by Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., on behalf of a kidney-transplant program in Nevada that has financial ties to her husband was a conflict of interest.
The announcement from Chairman Jo Bonner, R-Ala., and ranking member Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.. — which comes amid Berkley’s challenge to freshman Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. — emphasizes that committee’s decision does not necessarily imply that a violation occurred.
But news that the committee on June 29 unanimously voted to establish an investigative subcommittee is an unwelcome development for Democrats, who hope that the Silver State is one of a few where they could swipe a Senate seat back from Republicans. There is no certainty of when the closed-door investigation will end.
Last fall, the Nevada Republican Party filed an ethics complaint against Berkley, 62, after The New York Times detailed five years of actions “in which she pushed legislation or twisted the arms of federal regulators to pursue an agenda that is aligned with the business interests of her husband.” Those efforts reportedly included advocating for higher Medicare reimbursement rates for kidney care.
According to the committee’s Monday announcement, Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, will lead the investigative subcommittee and Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., will serve as ranking member. Reps. Robert Latta, R-Ohio, and Adam Schiff, D-Calif., round out the subcommittee.