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House opens ethics probe on Nevada Dem Berkley amid her bid for Senate seat

July 7, 2012: Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nevada, waves after speaking at the National Council of La Raza affiliate luncheon in Las Vegas.AP

The House Ethics Committee has launched an investigation of conflict of interest allegations against Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.

The launch of the probe throws a wrench into Berkley’s campaign to unseat Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican. The race is widely viewed as one that could help determine which party controls the Senate.

Berkley is alleged to have improperly pushed for higher Medicare reimbursement rates for a kidney transplant program at a Las Vegas hospital where her husband, a nephrologist, works.

Berkley’s Senate campaign said it welcomed a move that would increase transparency into the issue.

“We are pleased with the committee’s decision to conduct a full and fair investigation, which will ensure all the facts are reviewed. 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,” campaign manager Jessica Mackler said in a written statement.

Berkley later told Fox News that she "can't be responsible for what people read into things," with regards to whether the ethics inquiry will cast a shadow on her campaign.

Heller’s campaign declined to comment on the announcement of the ethics probe.

But the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, the organization devoted to electing Republicans to the Senate, didn't take a pass on the inquiry.

“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," committee Director Rob Jesmer said. "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."

The Ethics Committee initially said in March it would postpone action on Berkley’s case until after the Nevada primaries. Berkley easily clinched the Democratic nomination on June 12.

But the ethics allegations have been front and center in the Nevada Senate campaign. The GOP super PAC American Crossroads launched ads highlighting the issue.

“Charged with using her office to enrich her family, Berkley twisted arms to get federal dollars for her husband’s business, a blatant conflict of interest,” an American Crossroads’s advertisement says.

Berkley’s campaign issued a response ad that showed both Berkley and Heller advocating on behalf of the kidney transplant program.

“Seen this attack by Dean Heller’s supporters?" the Berkley ad says. "The truth: Shelley Berkley worked with Dean Heller, standing up to Washington bureaucrats who wanted to close Nevada’s only kidney transplant center.”

An investigative subcommittee will review the allegations and report to the full panel. It can recommend potential punishment if it decides Berkley is guilty of the charges.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee gave its support to Berkley.

“Shelley Berkley is a proven fighter for her constituents and a proven winner on the campaign trail, and our support for her campaign remains as strong as ever," said Guy Cecil, the group's executive director. "Voters will certainly recognize that Shelley always puts the needs of Nevadans first whether she was working to create jobs or to save the only kidney transplant center in the state."

The panel also noted in its release that "the mere fact of establishing an investigative subcommittee does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred."

Reps. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and  Donna Edwards, D-Md., will head the investigative subcommittee.

That panel recommends any potential punishment to the full Ethics Committee and possibly the entire House. This is the first time in several years that an inquiry, which started at the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), made it past the Ethics Committee’s bar and resulted in a full-blown Ethics Committee probe.

Fox News' John Brandt and Cristina Marcos contributed to this report.

 

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