WASHINGTON - Rep. Shelley Berkley said Friday she considers herself exonerated after a House ethics investigation dismissed one widely publicized allegation against her while upholding another that she disputes.
"Nothing I did was worthy of censure of any kind," Berkley said the day after the House Ethics Committee released the results of the probe that hung over her campaign for U.S. Senate.
In a mark against her, the committee said Berkley violated House rules by permitting her staff to make calls to federal agencies on behalf of her husband's medical practice after he complained on four occasions from April 2008 through December 2010 of problems obtaining payments from the VA, Medicare or Medicaid. The calls were deemed a violation because they caused "compensation to accrue to the beneficial interest" of Berkley, the panel said.
But the committee concluded it found no evidence Dr. Larry Lehrner was afforded "special favors or privileges," and the level of help to the spouse "was not unusual when compared to the assistance her office provided to other physicians."
The committee said there was no evidence Berkley acted with corrupt intent. Lawmakers supervising the investigation could not agree on a formal letter of reproval, deciding to take no further action.
Berkley defended her actions Friday.
"We at no time crossed the line, we never gave my husband any service that we wouldn't give any other constituent," Berkley said. "That's what the finding was. He was treated no differently."
She said Lehrner was one of a handful of Las Vegas doctors who complained about late reimbursements from government health agencies including the VA, which she said raised a policy matter.
Some of Lehrner's partners at the Kidney Specialists of Southern Nevada were proposing the refusal of VA patients, she said, "and that would have been an outrage."
"Larry did not want that to happen." she said.
Berkley hired Marc Elias, chairman of the political law practice, to represent her and paid him out of her private funds. She said she also offered to pay for attorneys for staffers, although it was not known whether any retained counsel.
"We paid for everybody's attorneys," said Berkley, one of the wealthier members of Congress, whose official financial records show her and her husband with a minimum net worth of $9 million, according to a Roll Call analysis earlier this year.
"I had no contact with my staff throughout this entire year regarding this matter," Berkley said. "I never spoke with any of them, but I told my attorney if they needed to have counsel, they should not be forced to incur that expense, that we would incur it."
Berkley had no estimate of how much she spent.
"It was horribly expensive, and I mentioned this to the committee that they are going to need to come up with a way of handling these things because many members of Congress contrary to popular myth live on their income," she said. "If they had an ethics complaint filed against them ... the process is very long, very difficult to navigate and very very costly."
The investigation was triggered by a complaint filed by the Nevada Republican Party based on a New York Times article in September 2011.
The article raised the question whether Berkley had a conflict of interest when she worked in 2008 to avert the federal decertification of the kidney transplant unit at University Medical Center without disclosing Lehrner's practice held a contract there.
The House Ethics Committee said it found no evidence of a conflict, a finding that Berkley trumpeted.
"I'm pleased the charges that were contained in that horrible New York Times article that were the genesis of the Republican Party complaint against me were dismissed completely, one hundred percent exonerated, no ethical violation of any kind," she said.
She said she believes the allegations, which triggered millions of dollars in attack ads against her, cost her the Senate race she lost to Repubilcan Sen. Dean Heller.
"I think the Ethics Committee is an important tool if used properly, but in this case it was used as a political device, and it did me harm," she said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.