Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), photographed at the U.S. Capitol on June 5. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House Ethics Committee has voted unanimously to launch a formal investigation into allegations that Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) used her position to benefit the financial interests of her husband — a blow to her candidacy in one of the nation’s most competitive Senate contests.

The ethics panel said Monday that it will probe “alleged communications and activities with or on behalf of entities in which Representative Berkley’s husband had a financial interest.”

News reports last fall detailed moves made by Berkley to sponsor legislation or influence federal regulators in ways that favored the business interests of her husband, Larry Lehrner, who operates dialysis centers in Nevada and has actively lobbied lawmakers to help kidney care providers.

Berkley, 61, is a seven-term Las Vegas congresswoman and candidate in a closely watched Senate race against Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) that observers believe could be a pickup for Democrats.

In a statement, Berkley’s campaign manager, Jessica Mackler, said: “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.”

The campaign’s statement noted that Berkley worked with other members of the Nevada congressional delegation, including Heller, to save the dialysis centers that were assisting more than 200 Nevadans seeking kidney transplants. Campaign aides suggested that closing the transplant centers ultimately would have decreased the quality of local health-care services, increased Medicare costs and would have boosted Lehrner’s income because he would have needed to provide more care to patients.

But the ethics committee’s decision signals that it agreed with the conclusions of the Office of Congressional Ethics, which prepared a report on the allegations. Under House rules, the ethics panel isn’t required to release the OCE’s full report until the committee closes its investigation or the end of the current congressional session.

The ethics panel first announced in March that it planned to launch an initial inquiry into unspecified allegations against Berkley.

This is the first time the ethics panel has empaneled a formal investigative subcommittee based on an OCE report since October 2009, when it agreed to probe allegations against Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Laura Richardson (D-Calif). In recent years, the committee also has launched formal investigations against Rep. Charles E. Rangel (D-N.Y.).

Since its inception in 2008, the OCE has conducted 92 preliminary reviews of allegations against lawmakers. Of those, the OCE has referred 32 cases to the ethics committee for further review.

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