VA chief in Las Vegas questioned in Berkley ethics probe


The top official for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Southern Nevada has been questioned by the House Ethics Committee in its investigation of allegations that Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., used her office to boost her husband's medical practice.

John Bright, director of the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, confirmed Friday that he spoke with committee representatives earlier this fall, as the committee presses to wrap up its work by the end of the year.

"I had a discussion with them," Bright said, declining to elaborate on the contact because of an agreement he said he signed with the committee. He said he was not subpoenaed.

A source familiar with the meeting said it took place in Washington, but it is unclear whether Bright spoke with committee members or staff investigators.

A House source said "a number of people" have been questioned in the Berkley probe, and the panel aims to complete the investigation by year's end before it would lose jurisdiction in the case.

Berkley is running for U.S. Senate, in a campaign where Republicans have spent millions of dollars on advertisements questioning her ethics. Win or lose on Nov. 6, she will be beyond the reach of the House ethics board at year's end.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said this week that the Senate Ethics Committee would not pick up the case if Berkley becomes a senator. In an interview with the Las Vegas Sun, he called the House probe "politically driven nonsense."

Bright oversees the region's VA clinics and the new VA medical center in North Las Vegas that Berkley championed as a seven-term congresswoman from Las Vegas and a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee until 2009.

The Ethics Committee's interest in the VA suggests the panel may be pursuing an investigation of Berkley beyond questions first raised in a New York Times report in September 2011.

After a preliminary review by the House Office of Congressional Ethics, the Ethics Committee announced in July its 10 members - five Republicans and five Democrats - voted unanimously to form a subcommittee to determine whether Berkley's advocacy on kidney health matters posed a conflict of interest because her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is president of the 29-doctor Kidney Specialists of Southern Nevada.

Berkley worked in 2008 to rescue the kidney transplant unit at University Medical Center, which faced decertification by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in 2008, without disclosing that her husband's practice held a contract for kidney services at the hospital.

Her lobbying against cuts in Medicare reimbursements for kidney care also have come under scrutiny.

Berkley has denied any wrongdoing, insisting she was motivated by concern over patient access to health care, not her family fortune. She has pointed out that Jon Porter and Dean Heller, then members of the House from Nevada, also signed a letter asking the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to reconsider, which it did.

The lawmaker also has pointed to dozens of health bills she has sponsored or co-sponsored, arguing her advocacy went well beyond kidney care.

A Berkley spokeswoman on Friday said the Ethics Committee investigation is confidential, "even from us."

"The reality is that Congresswoman Berkley is pleased the committee is conducting a thorough review in a timely manner because it will be clear that her one and only concern was for the health and well being of Nevada patients," Xochitl Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa accused Berkley's opponent, Sen. Heller, R-Nev., of leaking information about the Ethics Committee.

"It's unfortunate that Senator Heller and his allies are politicizing the committee through well-timed leaks in order to smear Congresswoman Berkley 10 days before an election," Hinojosa said via email.

Heller's spokeswoman declined to comment.

In response to a Review-Journal Freedom of Information Act request filed in August, the VA released a letter that shows Lehrner's Kidney Specialists of Southern Nevada was paid nearly $1.4 million for 569 dialysis patient visits from 2008 through Aug. 30 this year.

But not all VA patients went to his practice. Payment records show that in 2011 Kidney Specialists of Southern Nevada treated 62 of the 167 Southern Nevada veterans who sought dialysis outside of the VA system.

The VA said it uses such outside services when its medical facilities are not "feasibly available."

Berkley in September said that the new medical center she backed "will more than likely take business away from my husband" and that patients "are always paramount in my mind," while Lehrner's practice "was never relevant."

The VA also has a national contract for outpatient and home dialysis services with the DaVita corporation. The agency said Kidney Specialists of Southern Nevada and Lehrner are not affiliated with the DaVita contract.

Review-Journal writers Laura Myers and Paul Harasim, and Stephens Washington Bureau writer Peter Urban contributed to this report. Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau chief Steve Tetreault at STetreault@stephens media.com or 202-783-1760.

 

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