Berkley still irked over pace of House ethics panel’s review

WASHINGTON — Two months after leaving Congress, former Rep. Shelley Berkley still is irked over the House ethics investigation she believes cost her a seat in the U.S. Senate.

In Berkley’s view, the House Committee on Ethics was slow in handling her case, which consumed more than a year until it was resolved in December. In the end, the committee dismissed substantive allegations against her while finding her in violation of a conflict- of-interest rule the panel said could be clearer.

In the meantime, an ethics cloud hung over the Las Vegas Democrat during her Senate race against incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller.

The former congresswoman has blamed her loss, by 12,000 votes out of 994,000 cast, on the investigation, which had attracted millions of dollars in GOP attack ads.

“It is too late for me, but I think we need to clarify these rules so other members of Congress do not fall into the same trap,” Berkley said Friday after release of a Feb. 8 letter she sent to the House committee complaining about her case and suggesting changes in ethics reviews.

Berkley proposed the Ethics Committee “should act expeditiously to dismiss … matters without merit” following a preliminary review.

She also said the committee should be more discerning on complaints filed by partisans.

“I kept asking throughout the process for them to make a quick decision, which of course they did not,” Berkley said.

She initially shrugged off the complaint filed by the Nevada Republican Party as “bogus,” only to discover it had legs, at least among House investigators.

Berkley also proposed that lawmakers and their staffs targeted in an investigation be given an allowance to hire lawyers.

She declined to say how much defending the investigation cost her and her husband, Las Vegas doctor Larry Lehrner.

“It was a small fortune,” she said. “And if you don’t have a husband that is willing to do this, capable of doing this, what do you do?”

In a separate letter to the Ethics Committee in late January, Berkley lawyer Marc Elias decried apparent media leaks during the probe.

He singled out information in a Las Vegas Review-Journal story in October that reported the committee had questioned John Bright, Southern Nevada health care director for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A spokesman for the House Ethics Committee said the panel, as is its practice, would not comment on the Berkley and Elias letters or issues raised in them.

Nevada Republicans filed a ethics complaint against Berkley on Sept. 21, 2011, based on a New York Times article two weeks earlier that raised questions about the lawmaker’s lobbying activities on kidney health issues that appeared to benefit Lehrner, a nephrologist and partner at Kidney Specialists of Southern Nevada, a 28-doctor practice.

More than a year later, on Dec. 20, the Ethics Committee dismissed the allegations in the complaint. But it found Berkley in violation of a conflict rule stemming from her office’s actions on two occasions to help her husband’s practice collect delayed payments from the VA.

The committee recommended no punishment, saying that there was no evidence Berkley acted with malice or to enrich herself and that she provided the same service to other constituents.

The panel called for House leaders to review conflict standards “so they are clearer and more easily digested by the House community.”

“I can’t see how you can be held responsible for violating a rule the Ethics Committee admits is murky and not understandable,” Berkley said. There is no appeal process, so Berkley said she chose to send the letter to the committee to register her concerns.

“The cloud hanging over my head during this process caused me to lose a very close election for the United States Senate,” Berkley wrote.

“And the final committee report found me to be in violation of an admittedly vague House rule, one with which I attempted to comply in good faith.”

Despite the ethics run-in, Berkley said she considers her name to be clean, and she was not motivated further to clear it.

“I haven’t come in contact with anybody that so much as questions what happened, so I can’t say I need to get out from under a cloud because people are thinking less of me,” she said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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