WASHINGTON — Nevada’s race for U.S. Senate still is in an early phase, yet it is reaching new levels of vitriol, triggered by ethics questions that continue to dog Democratic candidate Rep. Shelley Berkley.
A clash Wednesday was set off by an ethics complaint filed in Congress against Berkley by the Nevada Republican Party, based on a national news report that raised questions about her advocacy on kidney health care.
A Democratic spokesman charged the GOP complaint "reeks of politics" and was draped in hypocrisy. In turn, the Democratic Party unveiled a video attack on her opponent, Republican Sen. Dean Heller.
All in all, it signaled a new chapter in a Senate campaign still 14 months from Election Day 2012. While voters are not believed to be paying much attention this far out, continued unwelcome publicity surrounding Berkley is sure to catch some eyes, political experts said.
"This is a distraction she certainly doesn’t need because even if there is no fire, there is enough smoke to cloud perceptions about her going forward," said Eric Herzik, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
The complaint, filed Tuesday with the Office of Congressional Ethics, charged Berkley "has used her office to enrich herself" in violation of House rules that forbid lawmakers from using their official positions for personal gain.
Specifically it drew on a story the New York Times published earlier this month reporting on Berkley’s efforts to advocate on behalf of kidney health over a period when her husband, a kidney specialist, was growing his Las Vegas practice in wealth and prominence.
"Nevadans deserve to know the truth: Why did Shelley Berkley fail to disclose this blatant conflict of interest, and besides violating the public trust, did she break any rules with her disturbing backroom behavior in Washington?" Republican Party Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian said in a statement publicizing the complaint.
"This is nothing more than a hypocritical smear campaign by the Republican Party," responded Jessica Mackler, Berkley’s campaign manager.
Berkley’s campaign tried to defuse one of the elements of the ethics complaint, which challenged her intervention, with Heller and then-Rep. Jon Porter, to rescue Medicare certification of the kidney transplant program at University Medical Center in 2008.
Kidney Specialists of Southern Nevada, the practice of her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, provided nephrology services, but not transplants, under a $588,200 contract with the hospital.
Berkley’s campaign put forward George McLaurin, a Las Vegan who was one of the first patients to receive a transplant at UMC after the program’s certification was restored. He told reporters the intervention by Nevada’s congressional delegation was welcomed and appreciated.
The new kidney "pretty much saved my life," said McLaurin, who is under the follow-up care of a doctor at Kidney Specialists of Southern Nevada. McLaurin said he did not know Lehrner was Berkley’s husband, but it made no difference to him.
"It’s sad that this whole thing is about ethics and we are talking about people’s livelihoods here," McLaurin said.
Berkley has denied conflicts, saying her work on kidney health matters was motivated by concern for patients, and not the health of her husband’s medical career. She has said in hindsight she should have more clearly disclosed the relationship.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, has said House ethics rules are drawn narrowly and the House Ethics Committee might not find Berkley violated them by using her influence to help UMC, or by writing letters to head off Medicare cuts to health providers that would include her husband.
Still the ethics watchdog group in a report this week said Berkley "acted in a manner that does not reflect creditably on the House when she took … official actions that could have benefited her husband’s company — without disclosing her husband’s interest."
While seeking to blunt the ethics complaint, Nevada Democrats launched a charge of their own against Heller, positioned as the Republican nominee to hold the Senate seat he inherited when Sen. John Ensign resigned in May.
A video posted on YouTube highlighted $103,000 in campaign contributions that oil companies have given to Heller. It asserted a link between the money and votes that Heller has cast on bills affecting the industry.
Democrats called attention to a June 28, 2010, Heller fundraiser hosted by The Alpine Group, a lobbying firm whose clients included BP, which operated the rig that exploded and leaked oil for three months into the Gulf of Mexico last year.
A few weeks later, Democrats charged, Heller "returned the favor" in voting against a bill that would have lifted a $75 million liability cap for offshore oil spills.
Mike Slanker, Heller’s campaign adviser, said the accusation was baseless. The charges "remind me of the 9/11 conspiracy films that accused the government of firing missiles at the Pentagon or maybe an Oliver Stone movie," Slanker said.
"The video and Congresswoman Berkley’s endless attacks make for solid works of cinematic fiction but as usual with Shelley are untrue and are nothing more than her attempt to cover up her unethical behavior in Congress."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.