By KEVIN FREKING
WASHINGTON (AP) - The House Ethics Committee announced Monday that it had appointed a panel to investigate whether Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley used her position to benefit 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.
The Nevada Republican Party filed a complaint last year saying that Berkley's efforts to keep a kidney transplant program open at University Medical Center in Las Vegas constituted a conflict of interest because her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a managing partner of a company that contracted with the hospital to provide kidney care.
The Ethics Committee had earlier said it was reviewing the matter and would announce its course of action by Monday. The committee could have dismissed the complaint outright, but its unanimous decision to conduct a formal investigation gives critics more opportunity to raise the specter of impropriety by Berkley, who has said she was merely looking out for kidney patients who would have had to travel out-of-state to get transplants.
Berkley's campaign said it was pleased with the committee's decision "to conduct a full and fair investigation."
"We are confident that, ultimately, it will be clear that Congresswoman Berkley's one and only concern was for the health and well-being of Nevada's patients," said Jessica Mackler, Berkley's campaign manager. "That's why she joined then-Republican Congressman Dean Heller to prevent Nevada's only kidney transplant program from being shut down by Washington bureaucrats."
Heller and Berkley are running for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat that has the potential to determine which party controls the Senate next year. Heller has stayed out of the fray, likely reflecting that he also worked to keep the transplant program running. His campaign declined to comment on the Ethics Committee's announcement. But other GOP-aligned groups are keying on the investigation. Crossroads GPS recently took out ads portraying Berkley as a politician who "makes the system work - for herself."
In October 2008, federal regulators issued an order that ended Medicare financing for the hospital's kidney transplant program, essentially draining it of the resources necessary to keep operating. Berkley worked to reverse the order, as did other members of Nevada's congressional delegation, and eventually they succeeded.
Republicans are saying that her work and other steps she has taken to expand federal assistance for kidney care is a conflict of interest. Besides seeking to save the transplant program, she also warned in a letter to a colleague that he should move carefully in considering changes in compensating doctors who provide dialysis treatments. Her husband is a kidney specialist.
The Ethics Committee issued a four-paragraph statement on Monday saying that it was establishing an investigative subcommittee that would review whether Berkley violated any law or House rules in her activities on behalf of business entities where her husband had a financial interest.
The committee said that Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, will serve as the investigative panel's chairman and that Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., will serve as the lead Democratic member. The other two members of the subcommittee are Rep. Robert Latta, R-Ohio, and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that the unanimous vote to move forward with the investigation "speaks volumes." The committee is evenly split, with five Republicans and five Democrats.
Meanwhile, his counterpart with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Guy Cecil, said Berkley is a proven fighter for her constituents.
"Voters will certainly recognize that Shelley always puts the needs of Nevadans first whether she was working to create jobs or to save the only kidney transplant center in the state," Cecil said.
Monday was the deadline for lawmakers to respond to a referral from the Office of Congressional Ethics. If the committee had opted to drop the matter, then it would have been required to release a report detailing what led to the referral. The office has forwarded 13 complaints to lawmakers during the current congressional session, and this was the first one that has led to the formation of an investigative panel.
The original complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics was filed by the Nevada Republican Party, which relied on a report from The New York Times to question Berkley's advocacy for the Las Vegas hospital and dialysis providers in general.
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