Ethics panel: Berkley violated rules

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) violated House rules by improperly using her office to benefit her husband and herself, the House Ethics Committee announced Thursday.

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But the Ethics panel found that Berkley did not intentionally violate the chamber’s rules. And the committee moved to simply adopt findings of its five-month-long investigation instead of taking further punitive action against the outgoing lawmaker.

Berkley lost her Senate bid last month after waging a gritty campaign against Sen.-elect Dean Heller (R-Nev.) that focused a great deal on her ethical woes.

The Nevada lawmaker has long maintained her innocence.

But the committee determined that on four occasions, from 2008 to 2010, Berkley’s husband, Dr. Lawrence Lehrner, contacted the lawmaker’s office about money he believed federal health agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, owed his practice in the form of reimbursements, the committee determined.

The committee found that Berkley and her staff took action to help Lehrner, a noted kidney specialist, get the money, which directly benefited Berkley and is in violation of House rules.

But Berkley did not act with the intention of enriching herself, the panel stated.

“Rep. Berkley had a legitimate concern, raised at the time that these issues were ongoing, that failures on the part of government insurers to reimburse providers in a timely fashion might result in the providers opting not to see patients insured by those programs,” the committee’s report states.

“In sum, Rep. Berkley's activities in the healthcare policy realm appear to have been motivated by factors wholly divorced from her family’s financial well-being.”

The committee found that Berkley didn’t take any action to recoup future financial claims for her husband’s practice — only past claims — and that her office’s level of assistance to Lehrner’s practice was on a par with its help to other physicians in her state.

The committee also ruled there wasn’t sufficient evidence to suggest that Berkley used her position to extend a contract between her husband’s practice and the kidney transplant center at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas (UMC). Berkley had drummed up support from the Nevada delegation to write a letter in support of continuing the program.

The committee “was simply unable to establish that Rep. Berkley, when she participated in a delegation-wide effort to save a program, which had a  connection to her husband she did not fully understand, violated the conflict of interest rules,” the panel’s report stated. 

The Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) referred the matter in February to the Ethics Committee, which was already conducting a preliminary probe of the allegations.

In June, the Ethics Committee launched a formal investigation. It met a total of 16 times, interviewed nine witnesses and issued three subpoenas for more than 108,000 pages of documents. Berkley testified under oath before the committee two weeks ago.

In a statement, Berkley said she was glad the committee had completed its investigation and stressed the panel’s findings that she was motivated by a desire to help Nevada patients get the medical treatment they need.

"I am pleased that a decision has now been reached and I thank my family, friends and colleagues for standing beside me throughout this process,” said Berkley.

"As I have always said, my actions to save the UMC transplant program were done out of concern for these Nevadans and the Committee's findings put to rest any claims that I acted improperly in fighting for their health care needs.”

Heller wasn’t shy about using the ethics probe to target Berkley during the campaign. Berkley has pointed to the political ammunition it gave her opponent as one of the top reasons for her loss.

“Character matters,” Heller said during a debate in September. “It matters in life and it matters in the U.S Senate. My opponent has a big problem. Do you know how unusual it is for the Ethics Committee to move forward on an investigation like this? It's big. It's huge. And she can't get away from it.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D), Nevada’s other senator, backed Berkley during her campaign and attempted to stave off the ethics concerns, saying that he did not think she would face an investigation if elected to the Senate.

Updated at 8:06 p.m.