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August 20, 2014

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Washington watchdog group critical of Berkley, Heck

A government watchdog group is critical of Reps. Shelley Berkley and Joe Heck in a new report examining nepotism and the handling of campaign funds by members of Congress.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s “Family Affair” report points a finger at 248 members of the House who used “their positions to benefit themselves and their families” over the 2008 and 2010 election cycles. The list of offenses runs from innocuous to egregious, and includes nepotism in the use of campaign funds and close family lobbying associations.

In the case of Berkley and Heck, both lawmakers say CREW’s zeal for rooting out abuses is misplaced.

Heck was called out for having his campaign reimburse him for $10,710 worth of “travel, office expenses and database management.”

A spokesman for Heck said those were “legitimate campaign expenses that then-candidate Heck paid with his own personal funds” — an assertion that CREW does not dispute.

In the report, the watchdog group asserted that reimbursements are “common and legal” but that the lack of oversight and scrutiny over such transactions leads to a “potential for abuse” — which is why they listed lawmakers who had reimbursed themselves more than $10,000 from their campaigns. Heck just made the cut.

The accusations against Berkley are more comprehensive and more longstanding.

“Rep. Berkley used her position to support her husband’s financial interests,” the CREW report wrote. “In addition, her husband, while not a registered lobbyist, met with lawmakers to advocate for the interests of renal physicians and has been a member of the board overseeing a political action committee (PAC) for renal physicians.”

Berkley’s work advocating for government support of kidney care was first called into question in The New York Times in September. The newspaper pointed out that her husband, nephrologist Dr. Larry Lehrner, had benefited from the congresswoman’s official work.

The CREW report documents episodes in which Berkley advocated against cutting Medicare compensation rates for dialysis treatment and petitioned — with the rest of the Nevada delegation — the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services not curtail Medicare reimbursements for kidney transplants that were part of Lehrner’s contract of services provided to University Medical Center.

Lehrner’s firm eventually renewed its contract with UMC at a 25 percent increase, the CREW report documents. The report also mentions that Berkley is the single biggest career recipient of campaign funds from the Renal Physicians Association. Lehrner is a member of the group’s political action board.

It’s not the first time that CREW has criticized Berkley. She received a “dishonorable mention” spot in CREW’s “Most Corrupt” report last year, a list that featured 19 lawmakers: 14 “violators” and 5 “dishonorable mentions.”

Berkley has consistently argued that CREW’s censure is misplaced.

“Shelley Berkley’s only concern is for the well-being of Nevada’s patients,” said campaign manager Jessica Mackler. “That’s why she joined fellow Reps. Jon Porter and Dean Heller to stop out-of-state Washington bureaucrats from shutting down the only kidney transplant program in Nevada, which would have denied life-saving treatment to hundreds of Nevada patients waiting for critical care.”

Lehrner’s firm— Bernstein, Pokroy & Lehrner, LTD — has held a contract with UMC to provide kidney services since 2007. Under the firm’s current contract, kidney transplants are one of 11 clinical responsibilities and 15 administrative responsibilities that are part of the service agreement.

Neither Berkley’s nor Heck’s actions have earned them any official scrutiny from House ethics investigators to date.

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