Nevada Republican Party united on one thing: complaint against Shelley Berkley


Leila Navidi

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev. walks into the new Nevada Democratic Party Field Office on primary election night in Henderson on Tuesday, June 12, 2012.

Published Wed, Jul 11, 2012 (2 a.m.)

Updated Wed, Jul 11, 2012 (12:03 p.m.)

Chalk this one up as the blind squirrel happening upon the proverbial nut.

In a year when the Nevada Republican Party has been noted almost exclusively for its dysfunction, it may have gotten it together long enough to pull off at least one coup.

Last September, two weeks after the New York Times published an investigation into whether U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley pushed for polices that would benefit her husband’s medical practice, the Nevada Republican Party filed a detailed complaint against her with the Office of Congressional Ethics.

That simple action — usually characteristic of a finely tuned campaign machine — now has some potential to help Republicans take over the majority in the U.S. Senate. And it may be a lone bright spot for a state party that continues to be plagued by problems.

Click to enlarge photo

Outgoing Nevada State GOP chairwoman Amy Tarkanian and State GOP chair hopeful Michael McDonald descend the stairs from a meeting with campaign representatives Sunday morning. They take a look at the caucus ballot counting going on below as they come downstairs. David McGowan, Rick Santorum's campaign director, comes down the stairs behind them.

“Imagine that,” said Amy Tarkanian, who as chairwoman of the state party in 2011 signed the complaint against Berkley.

In a fairly unusual move after reviewing a subsequent report from the Office of Congressional Ethics, the House Ethics Committee has formed a subcommittee to launch a formal investigation into whether Berkley broke house rules when she lobbied to protect Medicare reimbursement rates for kidney care and joined with the rest of the Nevada delegation to help save the sole kidney transplant center in Las Vegas.

Berkley’s husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a nephrologist whose practice had a contract with University Medical Center, which houses the transplant center, to provide kidney care.

The fact that the ethics committee formed a subcommittee isn’t an indication that Berkley is guilty of crossing ethical boundaries, and she has maintained her work was motivated by protecting patient care, not her family’s finances. As her campaign points out, Berkley has been a fierce advocate for better health care on a number of fronts.

Still, the committee’s action means Berkley will have to contend with a formal ethics investigation hanging over her head for the duration of her Senate campaign against Sen. Dean Heller.

The race, which so far has been fought on a razor-thin margin, is one of the most closely watched in the country. It is one of a handful that will determine whether Democrats keep control of the Senate.

Tarkanian said the case first came to her attention when a former RNC finance chairman and Nevada Senate candidate John Chachas emailed her the New York Times story. She then worked with the national party and former state party Executive Director David Gallagher to craft the complaint.

“We worked together with national to make sure the verbiage was OK, I stamped it, and we sent it out,” Tarkanian said.

Most often, such complaints are a campaign ploy that result in a few press releases and maybe an ad or two. Usually they involve the Federal Election Commission, which typically moves at glacial speed and has a hard time winning a majority on the politically split panel to take action.

The ethics complaint against Berkley, however, is more than just a press release in the making. In the past three years, the committee has opened only one other formal investigation after receiving a report from the Office of Congressional Ethics, which most often reviews information from multiple sources in crafting its report. That report won't be public until the committee finishes its work.

Still, the ethics complaint isn’t exactly an unknown to Berkley, who launched her Senate campaign with the full knowledge that it would be something with which she would have to contend. And her campaign has carefully planned for how to deal with it.

But for the Nevada Republican Party, the decision to file the complaint was a high point.

Indeed, the state party — which is now plagued by in-fighting, a rogue contingent of Ron Paul loyalists and an embattled chairman — appeared to be on the path to better organization under Tarkanian, who was compelled to resign when her husband decided to run for Congress.

As one insider put it: “Those were our glory days.”

This story has been edited to better explain the role of the Office of Congressional Ethics.

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