When the House of Representatives launched a formal ethics investigation into the activities of Democratic Congressman Shelley Berkley on Monday, it confirmed what most political observers already knew. Shelley Berkley practices crony capitalism, Nevada style.
On October 23, 2008, officials of the federal government’s Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) informed the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada that it would end federal reimbursement to its struggling transplant center, which had recently experienced unusually high death rates. Congressman Berkley immediately sprang into action. Her husband’s company, Kidney Specialists of Southern Nevada (KSSN), was in the second year of a lucrative contract in excess of half a million dollars annually to provide nephrology services to the University Medical Center’s transplant center. If federal reimbursements ended, payments to her husband’s company would end as well.
Despite her obvious conflict of interest, Congressman Berkley pressured CMS Acting Administrator Kelly Weems in two ways. First, she quickly signed and sent a letter to him, along with other members of the Nevada Congressional delegation, requesting that the reimbursement funding to the UMC transplant center be restored. Second, in a huge breach of ethics, she spoke directly with him. Using her authority as a member of the House of Representatives, she lobbied him to restore funding that would directly benefit her husband’s company and herself.
Within days, Weems crumbled under the pressure, and the funding was restored.
Berkley’s husband, Dr. Lawrence Lehrner, is a nephrologist who also serves on the faculty of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Medical School, which operates the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada. He also serves as the President of KSSN, which employs 21 doctors, has 7 offices, and operates either directly or through joint ventures 11 dialysis centers.
KSSN’s contract with the UMC transplant center has been renewed every year since. Citizens for Ethics reported that “[w]hen KSSN renewed their contract with the hospital in December 2010 (the practice was the sole bidder), the annual fees increased 25%. The practice’s contract is now worth $738,000 a year.”
As Citizens for Ethics reported recently:
"Members of the House are prohibited from “taking any official actions for the prospect of personal gain for themselves or anyone else.”46 House members are directed to adhere to 5 C.F.R. § 2635.702(a), issued by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics for the Executive Branch, which provides:
"An employee shall not use or permit use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public office in a manner that is intended to coerce or induce another person . . . to provide any benefit, financial or otherwise, to himself or to friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity."
"By using her position to induce CMS to stop the revocation of UMC’s transplant program certification, Rep. Berkley may have provided a financial benefit to her husband and therefore herself in violation of 5 C.F.R. § 2635.702(a)."
With Congressman Berkley now embroiled in a hard fought Senate race, charges of crony capitalism surrounding her efforts to keep this contract for her husband’s company have been highlighted by her Republican opponent, Dean Heller, and conservative Super PACs who oppose her.
Most American citizens, had they been serving in Congress and found themselves in the same circumstances as Congressman Berkley, would have recused themselves from any efforts to restore funding to a transplant center that had a contract with a spouse's company. But most American citizens have virtue, honor and ethical integrity, qualities which are sorely lacking in Congressman Berkley.
The House of Representatives investigation to determine whether Congressman Berkley has violated any rules of the House will grind forward slowly. Meanwhile, the voters of Nevada will have an opportunity to let Congressman Berkley know what they think of her ethical lapses in November.
Michael Patrick Leahy is a Breitbart News contributor, Editor of Broadside Books’ Voices of the Tea Party e-book series, and author of Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party Movement.