WASHINGTON -- Rep. Shelley Berkley's husband has been investing in Las Vegas troubled homes, renting out some but selling two this year for $86,000 profit, according to research circulated this week by Republicans seeking to dent her U.S. Senate candidacy.
Republicans charge the transactions show Dr. Larry Lehrner to be opportunistic in the search of profits in the midst of Nevada's foreclosure crisis, at a time when Berkley has been highly critical of banks forcing constituents out of their homes.
"How many members of Congress do you think find it a good idea to be flipping foreclosed homes right now? One?" said Mike Slanker, campaign adviser to Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., Berkley's election target.
Lehrner's defenders say he is doing exactly what needs to be done to pull Nevada through its housing mess: Take homes out of foreclosure or default, fix them up, seek new buyers and make them productive again.
"Where's the fire? Don't we want houses to be bought, invested in, cleaned up and sold to families rather than sitting there vacant, decaying and bank owned dragging down property values and destroying neighborhoods and economic growth?" said Jessica Mackler, Berkley's campaign manager.
Records further suggest that Lehrner overall may not be getting rich quick through a strategy of buying troubled parcels.
Although he is collecting rents, the taxable values of troubled properties he owns are well below the sums paid for them just a few years ago, according to Clark County records, underscoring the risk involved in Southern Nevada real estate.
From a political standpoint, the Republicans' focus on Lehrner, a prominent Las Vegas nephrologist, makes clear they view him as a potential Achilles' heel for Berkley, who is seeking to advance to higher office after serving 13 years in the U.S. House.
Their marriage more than a decade ago thrust Berkley to the upper levels of wealthy lawmakers; their net worth is at least $7.2 million according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Lehrner retained most of his assets in his name after the wedding, and Berkley has said she has a limited voice in how he manages those holdings.
The latest GOP swing at Berkley also comes on the heels of a New York Times piece in September that raised questions about her advocacy on kidney health matters as Lehrner's practice was growing in Southern Nevada. She has defended her work on health issues.
There is no accusation of illegality in the property transactions, and Berkley appears to have reported the holdings properly on annual personal finance forms filed with Congress.
The properties are held by SFH Investors, a limited liability corporation formed in 2007 that listed as managers Lehrner and Fred Fleming, who is Berkley's brother-in-law.
BOUGHT, SOLD AND RENTED
According to Clark County property records and information provided by Republican and Democratic sources:
■ SFH Investors bought a foreclosed home at 6932 Dancing Cloud Ave. in Henderson in May for $58,900 and sold it the next month for $85,000.
■ In March, Lehrner paid $200,000 for a foreclosed property at 1077 Woodlore Place in Las Vegas and transferred it to SFH Investors. In July, it was sold for $260,000.
■ In December 2007, Lehrner bought a foreclosed property at 11932 Orense Drive in Las Vegas for $270,000 from the Bank of New York after the previous owner owed more than $400,000 on it.
The property value has dropped to $165,834. It carries a mortgage of between $100,000 and $250,000 with BAC Home Loans, according to Berkley's most recent financial disclosure.
Lehrner is renting out the house and collected between $15,000 and $50,000 last year, according to disclosure forms that allow values to be reported in such broad ranges.
■ SFH Investors also owns seven other properties in Las Vegas and Henderson obtained in 2008 from banks or mortgage companies, according to Berkley's personal finance report for that year and her campaign. Three were bought by Fleming and transferred to the holding company.
"Properties bought by Lehrner were bank-owned, sitting there three, seven and even 19 months before Lehrner purchased them," according to information provided by Berkley's Senate campaign.
"Either these homes sit bank-owned and/or vacant, or, as Dr. Lehrner has, they are bought, invested in and sold to middle-class families."
Berkley further signed documents relinquishing any interest in the properties in a bid to make clear they solely belonged to her husband, her campaign said.
Properties still owned by SFH Investors include:
■ 11628 Aruba Beach Ave. in Las Vegas, bought from U.S. Bank National Association in February 2008 for $261,500. Its 2011-12 taxable value is $176,849.
■ 11012 Meadow Leaf Ave. in Las Vegas, bought in January 2008 for $201,900 from Greenpoint Mortgage Funding. It is currently assessed at $134,760.
■ 11234 Revelry Lane in Las Vegas, bought for $250,000 in January 2008 from Bank of New York. It is valued at $179,411
■ 546 Poplar Leaf St. in Las Vegas, bought in February 2008 from Deutsche Bank National Trust for $220,000. It is valued at $168,400
■ 7032 Azure Beach St. in Sun Valley north of Reno, which Fleming bought from Washington Mutual Bank in June 2008 for $176,000. It is valued at $132,614.
■ 11829 Ampucia Court in Las Vegas, bought by Fleming from Aurora Loan Services in June 2008 for $229,500. Its current value is $159,317.
■ 489 Melrose Heights St. in Henderson, which Fleming bought in June 2008 from LaSalle Bank National Services for $280,000. It is valued at $186,269.
Mackler said the lawmaker's record "is second to none" on fighting for mortgage relief for Southern Nevada homeowners.
"Getting middle-class families back into empty, foreclosed homes should be a priority for everyone -- and we won't recover economically and start creating jobs until Washington Republicans like Dean Heller stop playing games and start addressing the crisis of empty homes across our state," Mackler said.
Stephens Washington Bureau writer Peter Urban contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephens media.com or 202-783-1760.