Whether true or false, ethics review may be Berkley’s demise

Because it’s politics, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or false. The damage is done, and undoing it will be tough.

Friday’s announcement that the House Ethics Committee is going to continue reviewing Rep. Shelley Berkley’s ethics provides her enemies with the fodder to hammer her without mercy in political ads.

The committee said it would make a final decision by July 9 and emphasized this doesn’t mean members believe there’s a violation.

Still it’s lousy timing for the Democratic woman trying her best to unseat U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, in a race that may help decide whether Harry Reid continues as Senate majority leader.

Berkley has been under an ethical cloud since The New York Times reported in September that Berkley may have used her position in the House to push for health care legislation that helped her husband’s medical practice. The newspaper also questioned the ethics of Berkley’s efforts to block federal regulators from closing a kidney transplant center where her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, has a contract.

Berkley has said consistently that her efforts were to help Nevadans with kidney problems, not her husband the kidney doctor.

A complaint filed almost immediately by the Nevada GOP passed the first hurdle when it was screened by the Office of Congressional Ethics and found worthy on Feb. 9 of going to the House Ethics Committee for review. The extension of time is more routine, but that doesn’t matter.

Because there are five Democrats and five Republicans on the committee, Berkley can’t discount this as just another partisan action by Republicans.

If the Ethics Committee finds there was no ethical violation on her part, the allegations still hurt her politically as the campaign heads toward the November election. But at least she would have time to rebut it.

She overcame one ethics scandal before her first election to the House in 1998. Voters then and since have forgiven her sleazy-sounding government affairs advice from 1996 to Las Vegas Sands boss Sheldon Adelson suggesting the best way to deal with county commissioners and judges is by offering favors and contributions.

“This is not good news,” a savvy Democrat supporter of Berkley said Friday. Combined with the prior ethics issue, the Republicans will portray this as a double whammy, a pattern of questionable ethics. “Whatever flaws one can find with Dean Heller, I don’t think he has that baggage.

“In retrospect, she should have made it more clear that her husband was a physician,” the Democrat said, speculating that the Ethics Committee is “not likely to take action but is likely to give her a spanking, and say ‘You didn’t do anything wrong, but you should have disclosed.’ ”

The source continued, “Heller is a perfect foil. He looks like a Boy Scout. I don’t think any Democrat could argue this doesn’t hurt Shelley. But having said that, if she gets a clean bill of health, that helps enormously.”

Berkley wouldn’t be in this pickle if she had made it clear at every hearing and before every vote on medical issues that her husband was a doctor and could benefit.

Why she didn’t do that is hard to fathom. She’s smart. Why didn’t she disclose?

The Nevada GOP did exactly as expected, swiftly issuing a statement saying that given her “past ethically questionable behavior, the news that the House Ethics Committee is extending their investigation of Congresswoman Shelley Berkley comes as no surprise to Nevadans. Over her fourteen years in Washington, Congresswoman Berkley has shown that she cares more about her personal advancement than the people she is supposed to represent.”

Berkley can shout from the rooftops her only concern was for Nevada patients. And that may well be true.

But in these cynical times, she may not be believed, no matter what the House Ethics Committee finally determines.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/Morrison

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