After the House Ethics committee decided to move forward its investigation of alleged ethics violations by Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Nevada Democratic maintained a cool composure while insisting that her actions were motivated not by personal gain, but by her responsibility to constituents.
The ethics committee Monday announced it had established an investigative subcommittee to determine whether Berkley, who is running for the U.S. Senate this fall against Republican Sen. Dean Heller, violated House rules with respect to "alleged communications and activities with or on behalf of entities in which Representative Berkley's husband had a financial interest."
While the committee's deliberations are confidential and private, Berkley freely admits she joined other members of the Nevada delegation to write a letter pushing federal officials not to close a kidney transplant center - the only one in Nevada - even though it was tied to her husband's nephrology practice.
Berkley, who is married to kidney specialist Dr. Larry Lehrner, also reportedly wrote a letter to a House Ways and Means subcommittee with jurisdiction over Medicare petitioning against lower reimbursement rates for doctors providing dialysis treatments.
The committee's decision to proceed was spurred by an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which referred its report to the ethics panel last February. Now that the ethics committee has determined that the allegations merit further investigation, that OCE report will not become public until after the committee determines whether Berkley's activities violated the Code of Official Conduct or any law, rule regulation or other applicable standard of conduct.
Berkley, 61, says she is "absolutely convinced" that the ethics investigation will only prove that "the only thing I was interested in was patient care."
"I don't have ethics problems," Berkley told reporters at the Capitol Monday evening. "There was no way I was going to sit back and allow a kidney transplant program - the only one in the entire state - to be closed. Two-hundred people were waiting in line for a kidney transplant when they were going to close this, and those 200 people might not have been able to go anyplace else. So I'm pleased with this decision and we'll move forward from here."
Berkley, who is serving her seventh term in the House of Representatives, is locked in a tight match-up against Sen. Dean Heller, who took over former Sen. John Ensign's seat after he resigned in the aftermath of his own scandal in 2011.
Republicans quickly pounced on the news that the ethics committee is continuing its investigation.
"It speaks volumes that even Shelley Berkley's Democrat colleagues unanimously voted to move forward investigating Berkley's use of her office to enrich her and her husband," National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Jesmer wrote in a statement. "Since Berkley entered the political arena, we've seen a long pattern of ethical questions surrounding her conduct. Nevadans deserve someone in the Senate who they can trust to work on their behalf and not someone - like Ms. Berkley - who puts her own financial and political interests first."
Berkley said she is "pleased" that the ethics investigation is proceeding, and dismissed concern that it could negatively impact her race against Heller.
"I have a tremendous regard for the people that I represent and the people of the state of Nevada. They understand," she said. "I couldn't have lived with myself if I had stepped back and that program would have closed. I mean, there were 200 people waiting in line for a kidney transplant. What would you tell them? That you don't, you can't, you won't, you shouldn't? I mean of course, that was my job. That was my job."
"My job is not to recuse myself," she continued. "My job is to represent the people of the state of Nevada. They needed me."
Asked whether she wishes she had handled the situation differently, she said she would have made it clearer that her husband was a kidney specialist.
"I didn't think anybody didn't know that my husband was a kidney specialist," she said. "If I had it to do over again, I would be shouting from the rafters that Dr. Larry is a kidney specialist."