When Democratic Congressman Shelley Berkley spoke to a crowd of supporters at the Painters Union hall in Henderson, Nevada on Friday, she shrugged aside the serious charges of ethical misconduct being investigated by her colleagues in the House of Representatives. Instead, she focused on the story of her humble beginnings.
As the local CBS TV affiliate in Las Vegas described the event, Berkley spoke nostalgically about her own biography, a staple familiar to all who have attended her political rallies. Central to that obligatory life narrative often repeated by current Democratic candidates is the humble nature of her father's employment:
Berkley's father, who attends her events in a T-shirt bearing her name, was a waiter, and she did a string of jobs including shoe-shine girl on her way to success. She touts her father's ability to support the family and put two daughters through college on a waiter's earnings.
But it wasn't her shoe-shine job or even her hard work that made her wealthy. Her net worth, estimated in Congressional filings recently in excess of $8 million (and possibly as much as $16 million) comes from two sources. First is her career as a political fixer with a law degree, who has successfully parlayed her seven terms in Congress into even more personal financial opportunities. Second is her husband's business and assets, which has benefited from her direct intervention.
Her husband, Dr. Lewis Lehrner, heads up Kidney Specialists of Southern Nevada, the nephrology practice whose contract with the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada was saved by her direct intervention, using her power and authority as a member of the House of Representatives, in 2008. By undertaking the highly unethical action of directly contacting the Acting Administrator of the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, the federal agency that initially cut off funding to the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada, Congressman Berkley pressured a federal official to reverse his decision. The federal official promptly complied, and in the four subsequent years, Congressman Berkley's husband and his company have received well over $2 million in payments from the University Medical Center.
Though born in New York City, Shelley grew up in Las Vegas. She graduated from the University of Las Vegas in 1972, and received her law degree from the University of San Diego in 1976.
When she returned to Las Vegas after law school, she spent a career working as counsel for various casinos in town. She served in the Nevada Assembly from 1982 to 1984. While her beginnings may have been humble, it was during this early period in her legal career that she earned a reputation as a political fixer.
In the 1990’s she worked several years for casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire who has invested millions in conservative SuperPacs in the 2012 election—first one supporting Newt Gingrich, then, after Gingrich dropped out, one supporting Mitt Romney.
When Adelson learned of the unethical “legal graft” she was advocating, he fired her. As one press report described it:
“He despises Shelley Berkley,” Jon Ralston, a Nevada political sage who hosts a popular television program on local politics, said of Adelson. “There’s no fixing it.”
According to Berkley, “My relationship with him began to sour the moment I urged him to hold jobs open at the Venetian [casino] for former Sands workers. The more I encouraged cooperation with the workers, the more I incurred Mr. Adelson’s wrath.”
The comments came in the midst of the PR war the two waged after Adelson fired her (he claimed she violated attorney-client privilege) and Berkley began her 1998 congressional campaign. Now, as then, Berkley will be forced to explain some crass (or just pragmatic) political advice, including audio tapes on which she suggests Adelson offer favors and financial contributions to Clark County commissioners and judges.
In other words, Berkley advised Adelson to buy off judges. Instead of following her advice, he fired her.
In 1998 she ran for Congress and won. She’s been in the House of Representatives ever since, and her career has been a case study of someone who dramatically increased her own net worth while serving in Congress. It's an often told tale these days, and the kind of behavior that continues to sink the institutional reputation of Congress in the eyes of the public.
During her time in Congress, she's continued the pattern of behavior that first earned her a reputation as a political fixer. As a member of Congress, her political fixing has benefited more than just her "clients." Now, one purpose of her political fixing is to improve her own financial net worth. Though Congressman Berkley has become too morally compromised to see how wrong that is, even her Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives who supported the ethics investigation into her self-serving conduct know otherwise.
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.