The House Ethics Committee disclosed Monday a unanimous decision to open an investigation into whether Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., used her office to benefit her physician husband's financial interests.
The ethics investigation was sparked by a September 2011 New York Times story that details Berkley's multiple legislative efforts that have simultaneously benefited her husband, nephrologist Larry Lehrner. For example, Berkley led a successful effort to prevent the closing of Nevada's lone kidney transplant program where her husband's practice directs medical services.
"We are pleased with the committee's decision to conduct a full and fair investigation, which will ensure all the facts are reviewed," said Jessica Mackler, Berkley's campaign manager, in a statement. "We are confident that ultimately it will be clear that Congresswoman Berkley's one and only concern was for the health and well-being of Nevada's patients."
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which reviews allegations of misconduct, referred the matter to the Ethics Committee earlier this year, but the panel deferred on the inquiry until after Nevada's June primary.
In a statement released Monday, the Ethics Committee cited the OCE report as well as the panel's preliminary "discretionary review of the allegations" as cause for the investigation. The panel's 10 member — five Republicans and five Democrats — all voted to move forward with the investigation. Five of the last six referrals from OCE have not triggered investigative committees.
Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, a Republican, and Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards, a Democrat, will chair the investigation.
Berkley is a seven-term lawmaker who is running for the U.S. Senate this year against GOP incumbent Sen. Dean Heller, who was appointed to the seat last year after GOP Sen. John Ensign resigned over an extramarital affair. Heller's campaign declined to comment on the ethics inquiry.
The race is one of the most competitive of the 2012 cycle, and it is expected to play a leading role in determining which party controls the Senate next year. Democrats currently control the chamber 53-47.
It has already been fodder in the campaign. American Crossroads, a Republican super PAC, targeted Berkley on the ethics inquiry in an ad last month. She responded with an ad in her defense.
"The truth: Shelley Berkley worked with Dean Heller, standing up to Washington bureaucrats who wanted to close Nevada's only kidney transplant center," Berkley's ad says. "This was about saving lives."
Jennifer Duffy, an elections analyst for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, expects ethics to continue to be an issue in the race. "The Berkley campaign seems to believe this is not a big deal, but the Ethics Committee clearly thinks it is," Duffy said. "It's very much on the table for this race."