Berkley discloses conflict, but not smoothly

Wed, Sep 14, 2011 (2 a.m.)

“Well, my husband is a doctor, my daughter is a doctor. We do health care. My income is dependent on health care. So this is important to me.”

— Rep. Shelley Berkley, Feb. 16, House Ways and Means budget hearing

For those who argue Rep. Shelley Berkley should have been more transparent in pushing as a congresswoman for changes that would enrich her family, you can’t ask for more disclosure than that. Case closed.

For those who insist Rep. Shelley Berkley had a blatant conflict of interest in advocating for legislation that directly affected her pocketbook, you can’t ask for a better smoking gun than that. Case closed.

Welcome to the dichotomy that is this story — the question of when pushing hard for what you say you believe in intersects with what you cannot deny is your private interest. In a world where so little is black and white, where the innocent can look guilty, and vice versa, Berkley’s activism for policies that could improve patients’ lives is as obvious as the salutary impact of her positions on her husband’s business.

But Berkley lives in a world where opponents will always try to turn actions into a darker shade of gray. So whether she is wearing a white hat now dipped in black because of revelations in a New York Times story, or a black hat whose existence she denies with a white cover, Berkley will have to deal with this — if not now, then when Sen. Dean Heller reminds everyone next year in television ads.

(If you have not read the Times story yet, judge for yourself: here.)

Berkley has not tried to conceal that her husband is a doctor — she jokes about it, she frequently mentions it, she is quite proud of it. She has made similar disclosures at other committee hearings for years. “This is just another example of Congresswoman Berkley disclosing that fact,” Berkley’s campaign manager, Jessica Mackler, told me.

But Berkley’s flippancy or carelessness with words — a habit that endears her to friends and the media — could get her in trouble here as her inartful disclosure also will seem to some as an admission that she is pushing so hard because of her family’s finances.

The February comment came during a hearing in which Berkley talked about the Sustainable Growth Rate used to calculate Medicare reimbursements for health care providers such as her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner. “People have complained that we are losing doctors,” Berkley said at the hearing, just before exposing her family ties and how they might be affected by a decade of reductions in the rate.

Disclosure? Conflict? Both?

Berkley went on at the hearing: “Maybe the reason we’re losing doctors is because we don’t have a permanent fix for the SGR … nobody can run a business or a home the way we’re asking doctors to conduct their practices.”

Fewer doctors means less access for patients. A worthy cause for a congresswoman to be fighting against, right? Case closed.

Bigger reimbursements also mean more money for Family Berkley. Passion for her own pocketbook, right? Case closed.

What is simple to understand is that if you create more access for patients, you are likely to create more money for doctors. What’s not so simple is what Berkley should have done — abstain or disclose and participate (as she did), sometimes ardently and sometimes without disclosure.

By cloaking herself in nobility — I did it all for the patients — Berkley similarly seems to be in denial about how this looks, especially because Lehrner was so instrumental in starting a political action committee that gave her lots of money and will again for her Senate race.

Indeed, less than a month after she announced her candidacy this year, the director of public policy for the Renal Physicians Association, Robert Blaser, wrote an email to the board saying, “RPA has been asked to assist Rep. Berkley with her bid for a Senate seat in light of her long-term support of health care issues in general, nephrology concerns specifically, and RPA specifically.”

(I posted the entire email on my blog.)

I tried to find out from Blaser what Berkley had done for the PAC, but had no luck.

Although some will suggest Berkley is more interested in RPA’s interests — and her husband’s — than the public interest, the PAC only has given $66,000 this cycle — $1,000 to Berkley. By way of comparison, the beer wholesalers have given $924,500, according to

RPA is not a major player. But Berkley’s actions could have had a major effect on her finances. And this story, which she has refused to address, could still be a major problem for the congresswoman in the campaign crucible, especially if she cannot close the case.

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