- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2012

The House Ethics Committee is conducting a preliminary investigation into Rep. Shelley Berkley, Nevada Democrat, who is running for the Senate, over allegations she used her congressional position to help her husband’s business.

The committee also announced Friday it is conducting a separate preliminary inquiry into Rep. Vern Buchanan, Florida Republican, who already is being looked at by the panel for filing incomplete personal financial disclosures. The committee did not specify what new allegations it is investigating.

Spokesmen for both lawmakers predicted their members would be cleared.

The ethics committee said it began the inquiries in February after the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent office which takes a first look at accusations against House members, recommended the committee conduct investigations of Ms. Berkley and Mr. Buchanan.

The committee said it needed until July 9 to determine if it should launch a full-scale probe of Ms. Berkley, a seven-term congresswoman, and until May 9 for Mr. Buchanan, a three-term congressman.

The announcement comes at a bad time for Ms. Berkley who is hoping to knock off incumbent Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, who was appointed after the April 2011 resignation of former Sen. John Ensign over ethics charges. The race is considered a tossup.

Jessica Mackler, Ms. Berkley’s campaign manager, said in a statement the committee is looking at the congresswoman’s successful efforts to keep a kidney transplant program at a Nevada hospital. Ms. Berkley’s husband, Dr. Lawrence Lehrner, later won a $738,000-a-year contract for his company from the hospital’s kidney care department, according to the New York Times.

“As the committee reviews this complaint, they will determine that Congresswoman Shelley Berkley’s only concern is for the well being of Nevada’s patients,” Ms. Mackler said. “That’s why she fought against out-of-state Washington bureaucrats from restricting patients’ access to care.”

Ms. Mackler said Mr. Heller, then a congressman, and former Rep. Jon Porter, Nevada Republican, both helped the congresswoman “to stop Nevada’s only kidney transplant program from being shut down, which would have denied life saving treatment to hundreds of Nevadans.”

She said that last fall, the Nevada Republican Party filed an ethics complaint against Ms. Berkley after the New York Times report.

A spokesman for Mr. Buchanan called the ethics committee announcement a “routine notification” that “says nothing at all about the merits” and reflects the panel’s heavy workload.

“We are working with the committee and are confident that, at the end of its review, the committee will conclude that Congressman Buchanan engaged in no wrongdoing.” said his press secretary, Max Goodman.

The ethics panel is still conducting its earlier probe to determine if Mr. Buchanan, who made a fortune as an auto dealer, broke any federal laws by failing to list director positions on his personal financial disclosures. A federal grand jury is reportedly looking into fundraising for Mr. Buchanan’s congressional campaigns.

The committee said the disclosure of the investigations “does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred.”

The announcements of the preliminary investigations were made by Rep. Jo Bonner, Alabama Republican, who chairs the ethics committee, and Rep. Linda T. Sanchez of California, the panel’s ranking Democrat. The committee can decide to empanel an investigative subcommittee to conduct a full-scale investigation, drop the case or ask for more time to review the allegations.

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