A rocky start for Berkley

Nevadans haven’t been paying much attention to the upcoming contest to replace John Ensign, and Rep Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., would just as soon keep it that way. Thanks to some recent developments, that’s not going to happen.

The New York Times recently reported that on numerous occasions over a five-year span, Berkley “pushed legislation or twisted the arms of federal regulators to pursue an agenda that is aligned with the business interests of her husband, Dr Larry Lehrner.”

There were some serious problems with the kidney transplant program at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas, so much so that kidney transplants were failing, and patients were dying at an alarming rate. Federal regulators stepped in and made moves to shut it down completely. Berkley aggressively lobbied to save the program, and it ultimately was spared.

Berkley’s efforts also benefited her husband, Dr. Lehrner, whose nephrology practice administers medical services at the UMC. Since then, the program has expanded, resulting in a $738,000-a-year contract with the hospital.

It is important to note that fellow Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller, both R-Nev., worked together with Berkley to save the transplant center, and Berkley’s senate campaign is quick to point this out. However, it also must be said that over a five-year period, Rep. Berkley has co-sponsored at least five bills that would expand federal reimbursements for kidney care, and she has worked to block enforcing regulations and to ease the flow of money to kidney care centers.

Considering her advocacy of proper funding for care for a variety of other diseases—not just those of the kidney—it would be plausible for Berkley to semi-credibly shrug off these allegations, if it weren’t for a few more pieces of information concerning Berkley’s husband, Dr. Lehrner.

For starters, Lehrner was instrumental in starting the Renal Physicians Association, a political action committee that has not only sought help from Berkley’s office, but has donated heavily to her congressional campaigns on numerous occasions.

Lehrner has also been very vocal about his symbiotic relationship with his wife, even flippantly joking at a 2008 conference of renal physicians that one of the best ways to make a difference in Washington, D.C., is by “marrying an elected official.” This may have been a poorly timed attempt at humor, but when looked at in concert with the other facets of this situation it becomes advertising gold for the Heller campaign and the NRSC.

This is not Berkley’s first foray into murky ethical waters. In 1996, when Las Vegas Sands Corp was preparing to build the Venetian, Berkley—then their government relations consultant—advised that one way to garner support for the Venetian was to offer favors to Erin Kenny and Yvonne Atkinson-Gates, both sitting members of the Clark County Commission. This was not some offhand joke on Berkley’s part. Kenny later served time in prison for taking bribes and Atkinson-Gates also saw her political fortunes go down like the Hindenburg in an ethics cloud. Memos were also discovered where Berkley urged Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson to make campaign contributions to judges, saying they “tend to help those who helped them.”

The ethical problems from Berkley’s time at Sands Corp are not a secret to voters, but considering the fact that her current congressional district is overwhelmingly Democrat, no opponent has been able to make them stick.

The harsh reality for Berkley is that she has decided to venture outside the comfort zone of her incredibly safe congressional district. In the past where voters haven’t cared because of her party, her incumbency and her seniority, it is anybody’s guess how the rest of Nevada is going to react to these allegations. One thing is for certain, however. Sen. Heller’s reelection campaign can’t wait to find out.