Editor’s note: This post has been altered from its original version to include video clips.
Anybody with a television set knows Rep. Shelley Berkley has been under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. The bi-partisan members of that body voted in July to launch a full-scale investigation of a complaint filed by the Nevada Republican Party that alleged Berkley has a conflict of interest when it comes to votes on health care involving kidney doctors, because she’s married to one.
Specifically, Berkley is accused of advocating against the closure of the UMC kidney transplant program — the only such program in Nevada, and one that is overseen by her husband’s medical practice — as well as advocating and voting against a reduction in Medicaid reimbursement for kidney care.
One of the key questions surrounding the Ethics Committee investigation is whether Berkley sough guidance from the committee before she moved to help UMC or advocated on the Medicaid issue. I asked that question, and one follow up, in a recent interview on 8NewsNow’s PoliticsNOW. Here’s what she said:
SEBELIUS: When we left we were talking about the kidney transplant program at UMC. Let me ask you this, before you advocated on that, and also before you advocated on the issue of Medicare reimbursements for, specifically for kidney dialysis, did you contact the House Ethics [Committee] Office and ask them, ‘Is this appropriate, is it OK if I do this’? The House Ethics Manual says that’s something congresspeople are encouraged to do.
BERKLEY: Let me say this, it’s my understanding that my office did contact the Ethics Committee, but I didn’t personally do that. And all of the other issues that are involved with the ethics complaint and the ethics investigation we’ve been asked to keep those confidential. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to respect the wishes of the Ethics Committee and let them do their investigation.
SEBELIUS: Let me ask one question that hopefully will not be covered by that, because it took place prior to it. Did you hear back from them? Did they give a yea or nay as to advocacy on those programs?
BERKLEY: I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t give you an answer. I’m not trying to be evasive, I just honestly don’t know the answer to that question.
You can watch that exchange here:
Now, the thing that stands out about that answer is this: If Berkley’s staff inquired about the propriety of her actions and got the blessings of the Ethics Committee, it’s reasonable to assume she would be air-dropping copies of that letter over the entire state of Nevada, and that Berkley would have the text memorized by now so she could recite it on shows such as mine. The fact that she said she didn’t know the answer suggests that she was mistaken, and her staff never made those inquiries in the first place, or they did, and she was counseled to avoid conflicts, or they inquired, but about a more narrow issue, and the resulting advice isn’t globally relevant to the issue.
But the comment was interesting for at least two other reasons, as well. First, she told my colleague Jon Ralston during an exchange on Face to Face with Jon Ralston back in June that a financial conflict of interest “did not occur to me” when she was fighting to save the UMC program. Here’s a transcript:
RALSTON: When you did all this stuff, this could affect [Dr.] Larry [Lehrner, Berkley's husband]. Larry might be affected…
BERKLEY: I wasn’t thinking about the politics of it, and I wasn’t worried about the politics of it…
RALSTON: This is the financial benefit side of it…
BERKLEY: It did not occur to me. My only concern, my only concern, was to provide good health care for the state of Nevada, for the people that live here.
You can watch that exchange here:
Obviously, this is relevant because if a conflict of interest really did not occur to her, neither Berkley nor anyone on her staff would have had any reason to contact the House Ethics Committee to ask whether advocating on UMC was permissible.
Again, could there be an explanation that harmonizes her answers on the two shows? Is it possible that Berkley’s office sought guidance from the Ethics Committee about, say, voting or advocating on Medicare reimbursements for kidney dialysis, but not for her advocacy on UMC? Perhaps, although that seems unlikely, given that a vote affecting every single one of the nation’s kidney doctors is far more attenuated than advocating on a single program overseen by Berkley’s husband. (It should be noted that Berkley’s advocacy in the UMC matter has no pecuniary component; the amount of the contract would not have changed even if the kidney transplant program had been shut down.)
But there’s more. A week after Berkley appeared on PoliticsNOW, she was a guest on To the Point with Anjeanette Damon, where she was asked again about asking for Ethics Committee guidance. Here’s that transcript:
DAMON: Las week, you told my colleague Steve Sebelius that your office actually sought input from the House Ethics [Committee] Office…
BERKLEY: No, I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that.
DAMON: Did your office, as you mention to Steve Sebelius, request an opinion, guidance, advice at all from the House Ethics [Committee] Office prior to your actions?
BERKLEY: Anjeanette, I absolutely cannot answer that question. I’ve been told by the Ethics Committee not to say anything ’till their investigation is done, and then everything will be on the table.
You can see that portion of the interview here:
Despite Berkley’s denial, however, she clearly did say on PoliticsNOW that it was her understanding that her staff had sought input from the Ethics Committee. And while Damon didn’t repeat Berkley’s exact, word-for-word quote, Damon did accurately summarize what Berkley had said before Berkley interrupted to deny she’d said it.
But why deny it?
After the discrepancy came to light, I sought clarification from the Berkley campaign as to whether what she’d told me on PoliticsNOW was accurate, and, if so, why she would deny saying what she’d said just a week after she’d said it. But the campaign declined to comment, citing (as Berkley did) the request of the Ethics Committee that she remain silent during the investigation.
So, whether Berkley’s office actually sought guidance, when they sought that guidance, about what they sought that guidance and what the Ethics Committee said in reply is something we will all have to wait until after the November election to find out. What we do know, however, is that Berkley did say — on the record, and without trickery — that it was her understanding that her staff did seek ethical guidance. That remains true, despite her denial on To the Point.