The News Without Transparency: A Congresswoman’s Cause is Often Her Husband’s Gain

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Last month the New York Times looked into whether there was a conflict of interest regarding Representative Shelley Berkley’s (D-NV) support for kidney care programs and her husband’s business. Her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, operates numerous dialysis centers in the state and engages in lobbying on behalf of kidney care providers. We investigated and found that most of the article’s claims can be supported by evidence publicly available online, although some was obtained through FOIA requests and in-person investigation.

The article provides evidence that Berkley may be catering to the kidney industry, saying that Berkley has “co-sponsored at least five House bills that would expand federal reimbursements or other assistance for kidney care.” 

  • GovTrack provides a list of sponsored and cosponsored bills listed by member of Congress. A search for Berkley finds 191 bills that she has cosponsored in the 112th Congress, one of which contains the word “kidney.” A search for cosponsored bills in the 111th Congress returns 530 bills, seven of which contain the word “kidney.”

The article notes that Berkley’s husband’s nephrology practice has a $738,000-a-year contract with the University Medical Center in Las Vegas partly due to his wife’s influence. The article also notes that the couple “holds assets valued from $7 million to $23 million.”

  • This information could be obtained using the personal financial disclosure forms for members of Congress, available from the Center for Responsive Politics site, OpenSecrets.org. Berkley’s disclosures are available through 2010 (filed in 2011).

The article claims that Dr. Lehrner has “played a central role in an industry campaign to lobby members of Congress — including his wife — on behalf of kidney care providers.”

  • OpenSecrets’ lobbying data indicates that 61 clients have lobbied for specific issues around kidney care since 2005, obtained by searching the database by issue area “kidney.” DaVita, Inc. is the client which mentioned the word “kidney” the most – 183 times – in its lobbying disclosure forms.

Berkley’s husband co-owns several dialysis centers with DaVita, which the article claims happens to also be “one of Berkley’s biggest campaign contributors.”

  • CRP data shows that DaVita donated $19,400 to Berkley in 2012 and $6,550 in 2010. The health care industry overall contributes a significant amount to Berkley, second only to the gambling industry.

The article discusses the amount the federal government spends on kidney care such as that advocated by Berkley and her husband, saying that “The Medicare system spends an estimated $27 billion a year, or about 6 percent of overall Medicare spending, to help some of the approximately 550,000 Americans who have so-called end-stage kidney disease.”

  • These statistics are available in the annual data report published by the United States Renal Data System.

The article makes the point that there are concerns regarding the quality of medical care being provided despite these federal funds, citing the case of Shawn Rowlett, who died after a kidney transplant at the University Medical Center. Subsequently “the hospital settled a malpractice suit for $77,500 – the maximum amount allowed in Nevada” and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued injunctions against the hospital.

  • The malpractice suits can be searched online using Clark County Court‘s website, but the actual records are only available in person at the court. Doctor licensing records in Nevada are also searchable online and include records of disciplinary action against doctors, investigative committee results, and complaints against pharmaceutical manufacturers.
  • The information regarding the CMMS injunctions was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, according to the author of the piece, Eric Lipton.

Moving forward from this scandal, Berkley has since said that she, “should have more fully disclosed” the details of how her husband’s work overlapped with the University Medical Center program she helped save. She said she thought it was generally known that her husband was involved with the hospital in question, but that she would now “take further actions to publicize the connection.” Interestingly, while numerous newspaper outlets have run commentary on the New York Times accusatory piece, only the Las Vegas Review-Journal mentions her attempts to apologize.

The Nevadan Republican Party has filed an official complaint against Berkley, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has included her on their list of “Most Corrupt” politicians.

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“The News Without Transparency” shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we’ve redacted in the piece above. If you have an article you’d like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at mbuck@sunlightfoundation.com.

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