This week, the House Ethics Committee is scheduled to decide on whether to proceed with the investigation of Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV), who is also running for Senate against Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV). The case against Berkley is one of the more clear-cut conflict of interest cases imaginable: Berkley has repeatedly advocated, intervened, and sponsored legislation on behalf of matters in which she has a personal financial interest.
Here’s the story.
Berkley’s husband is Dr. Larry Lehrner, a nephrologist. Lehner is also managing partner of Kidney Specialists of Southern Nevada (KSSN). KSSN was contracted with Nevada’s University Medical Center (UMC) for nephrology services; KSSN earned just under $600,000 under the contract. Within a year of the signing of that contract, the federal government – under the auspices of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services -- revoked UMC’s kidney transplant program and ended Medicare financing for it, thanks to high death rates in the unit – “more than twice the expected level,” according to the New York Times.
That’s when Berkley stepped in. She protested CMS’ decertification and defunding, then set up calls between UMC and CMS. Then she called up Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and the head of the CMS. Berkley’s aim: keep the program open.
CMS ended up reversing the order. In fact, UMC had to expand its kidney staff – and KSSN got an even bigger contract. Now it earned $738,000 per year. Not coincidentally, employees of KSSN handed over cash to Berkley’s election campaigns.
Berkley has taken a special interest in pushing bills that provide subsidies to the kidney care industry. And she’s received disproportionate support from the industry. She’s pushed to reverse funding cuts for kidney dialysis under Medicare; she’s moved to protect Medicare reimbursement for specialty physicians. All of this looks highly suspicious, and certainly worthy of further investigation.
Berkley maintained recently that she has “never advocated for anything that was not in the best thing for patients and patient care.” Asked specifically about the personal financial benefit side of it, she stated, “That did not concern me, my only concern was to provide good health care in the state of Nevada for the people that live here. That's it.” Let’s repeat that answer, “That did not concern me.”
And that’s precisely her ethical problem: that she did not concern herself with the positive, beneficial impact her official actions had on her husband’s business and her family income. The House rules concerning personal conflicts of interest are quite clear. Stating that she was only concerned with a publicly beneficial end does justify the means -- if the means for attaining that end also break the House rules and benefit her as well. It’s like saying, “I was only helping that little old lady cross the busy street, but the sign said ‘don’t walk.’”
If the House Ethics Committee does not establish a formal investigative subcommittee to more appropriately investigate this serious matter further, it will be just another black mark on a committee that has a long history of routinely and repeatedly allowing our Congresspeople to avoid culpability for their corruption.