Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has predicted that the Senate will not take up the House ethics investigation of fellow Nevada Democrat Rep. Shelley Berkley if she unseats Sen. Dean Heller (R) on Nov. 6, even though the Senate’s ethics rules and precedent seem to indicate that it has the authority to examine allegations related to the conduct of lawmakers before their arrival in the chamber.
“The Select Committee was intended ‘to be free to investigate anything which, in its judgment, seemed worthy, deserving, and requiring investigation’ and ‘would not be limited to alleged violations of Senate rules, but it would take into account all improper conduct of any kind whatsoever,” the Senate Ethics Manual states.
Reid told the Las Vegas Sun earlier this week that the House investigation into whether Berkley broke ethics rules or laws when she intervened to save a kidney transplant program at a hospital where her physician husband had a lucrative contract was “politically driven nonsense.”
“The Ethics Committee in the House is different than what we have in the Senate. Much different. If this were not an election year, [the issue] would be long gone,” Reid told the newspaper in an interview Monday.
A Reid spokesman said the Senator was simply pointing out that the investigation began after the issue was raised by Nevada's Republican Party.
The House Ethics Committee announced in July that it was forming an investigative subcommittee to determine whether Berkley violated “any law, rule, regulation, or other applicable standard of conduct ... with respect to alleged communications and activities with or on behalf of entities in which Representative Berkley’s husband had a financial interest.”
Given the timetable of the committee’s previous investigations, it is unlikely that the matter will be concluded before Berkley leaves the House at the end of this Congress.
The Senate Ethics Committee has, in the past, investigated alleged violations that occurred before a lawmaker arrived on Capitol Hill.
In November 2009, for example, it issued a Public Letter of Qualified Admonition to then-Sen. Roland Burris related to his appointment to the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.
“The Committee found that you should have known that you were providing incorrect, inconsistent, misleading or incomplete information to the public, the Senate and those conducting legitimate inquiries into your appointment to the Senate,” the letter said. “Although some of these events happened before you were sworn in as a U.S. Senator, they were inextricably linked to your appointment.”
The Senate Ethics Manual makes it clear that the body also has the jurisdiction to examine conduct that is unrelated to a lawmaker’s official duties.
“The Senate or House may discipline a Member for any misconduct, including conduct or activity which does not directly relate to official duties, when such conduct unfavorably reflects on the institution as a whole,” the manual states.
Though the Senate Ethics Committee in May 2008 dismissed its probe of whether Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) solicited prostitutes — actions that occurred before his candidacy for Senate — it left open the possibility that it would revisit the case in the future.
“The Committee reserves the right to reopen an investigation should new allegations or evidence be brought to our attention,” the panel’s letter to Vitter said.
In that case, the dismissal was based in part on the fact that the matter “did not involve use of public office or status for improper purposes” — a fact that differentiates the Vitter probe from the allegations faced by Berkley.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.