About That Shelley Berkley Story…

September 7, 2011 12:32 p.m.

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) is in a heap of trouble today after a New York Times story painted her as using her office to help her husband’s business interests.

Berkley’s now running for Senate to replace John Ensign (R), who left Congress after some bad headlines of his own. Reports out of Nevada today suggest the story is going to play big in the race, provided Berkley can’t get out from under all the negative attention quickly.That process might be easier for Berkley after a close reading of the New York Times story. The article uses this quote to make its case:

“This is a very serious conflict of interest,” said James A. Thurber, a former Congressional aide who has helped revise ethics rules and is now director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “There is an official use of power here to help him and the family — and I think that is unethical.”

Emphasis added. Thurber has had his own ethical problems, as the TPM Muckraker team documented in 2009. Back then, Thurber’s name came up during a Congressional investigation of forged letters sent by a corporate lobbying firm posing as grassroots local groups.

The chief of the firm, Jack Bonner, was hauled before Congress to answer for the letters — and Thurber got caught up in the scandal when he signed on as Bonner’s “independent” ethics adviser. That job — which Thurber quit shortly thereafter — led to an investigation by Thurber’s other employer, American University, after he used school money to pay for an ad praising Bonner’s ethics.

Thurber was used to make Berkley look particularly bad in the Times story, which her campaign pushed back on yesterday. Other ethics experts seem to be less moved by the tale than Thurber was.

The story centers around the moves by Berkley and other members of the Nevada Congressional delegation to stop the federal government from shutting down Nevada’s only kidney transplant center after concerns about the quality of care it was providing. Berkley’s husband is a prominent nephrologist who administers care at the center and takes home hundreds of thousands of dollars because of it.

CREW’s Melanie Sloan (who has faced her own ethics questions) told the AP that the story was far less concerning to her than it had been to Thurber in the Times.

From the AP:

“I think going to bat for the hospital, it’s really hard for me to see that as a big conflict,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “The concept of closing the only transplant center in the entire state, that seems like a big deal, and it seems like any member of Congress would have to be involved, plus she didn’t initiate it, so it just doesn’t bother me very much.”

This is a pretty complicated story, and it doesn’t look great for Berkley on its face. But Thurber, who condemned Berkley so strongly in the Times, has his own awkward paper trail, too.

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