Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Before John Ensign resigned as Nevada's junior senator on May 3, the Republican faced a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into a possibly illegal cover-up that followed an affair between Ensign and Cindy Hampton, a campaign aide who was married to the senator's administrative assistant. Last week, the committee released a report on the probe -- and it is ugly.
The committee wasn't particularly interested in the nine-month affair. Its focus was on -- you guessed it -- the cover-up.
Ensign's parents made a $96,000 "gift" to the Hamptons after the couple stopped working for Ensign. Ensign steered husband Doug Hampton into a lobbying job -- despite a federal law that bans staffers from lobbying the Senate within a year of leaving the Capitol.
Special Counsel Carol Elder Bruce found substantial evidence that the senator broke federal law, made false or misleading statements to the Federal Election Commission about the $96,000 severance and obstructed justice when he destroyed documents to cover his trail.
So go figure this: Why has the Justice Department indicted the husband on seven counts of violating the lobbying ban, but not the senator?
Ensign and his attorneys maintain that while Hampton may have lobbied illegally, Ensign did not break the law. Melanie Sloan, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, answered, "I don't know their real reason. They said they didn't have enough evidence. That seemed impossible to believe, given the indictment of Hampton."
DOJ spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said of the Bruce referral, "We take all referrals of potential crimes seriously. We intend to examine thoroughly the information provided, and take any necessary and appropriate steps based on our review."
OK, but no one can accuse Attorney General Eric Holder of pursuing corruption charges too aggressively.
If Ensign had any esteem for the Senate, he would have resigned in June 2009 when Doug Hampton went public about the affair -- not because of the infidelity but because Ensign abused elective office to buy Hampton's silence.
According to the report, Ensign pushed various interests to hire Hampton as a lobbyist in 2008 and then facilitated Hampton's efforts. Ensign called federal agencies and officials to promote the interests of Hampton's clients.
When Ensign's own staffers complained that Hampton was breaking the law by trying to contact them, Chief of Staff John Lopez became Hampton's "channel" in order to conceal Hampton's activities from wary aides, Lopez told Bruce under grant of immunity.
Ensign put his parents in an untenable position when they submitted affidavits to support the claim that the $96,000 was not a severance package.
I have to include this item from the report because it is so bizarre. When Ensign's spiritual adviser, Tim Coe, discovered Ensign and Cindy Hampton at a hotel in February 2008, he pleaded with the senator, "I know exactly where you are. I know exactly what you are doing. Put your pants on and go home."
When he announced his resignation, Ensign denied violating Senate Ethics rules. For once, I agree with Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the ethics Committee, and strongly disagree with that claim.
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See Other Commentary by Debra J. Saunders
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