Sen. John Ensign scandal gets deeper with allegation of lobbying misdeeds

Did Senator Ensign violate a lobbying ban by helping a former staffer who's wife he had had an affair with? Ethics watchdogs think so.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on health care reform legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 1.

Sen. John Ensign’s Senate colleagues stood by him today, after a news report in the New York Times raised new questions of possible legal violations in how the Nevada senator wound down an affair with a campaign staffer.

At issue in today’s report is whether the two-term Nevada senator helped former top aide Doug Hampton violate a one-year lobbying ban and then did favors for his clients.

Previous reports disclosed a $96,000 "severance payment" to the Hamptons and two of their children from Ensign's parents that ethic watchdogs say should have been publicly reported.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell declined comment on today's report.

The Senate ethics panel does not comment on ongoing investigations, including whether a senator is being investigated. Senator Ensign’s office did not return calls for comment.

But outside watchdog groups say that senators are undermining the credibility of their institution by dismissing breaches of ethics. Previous reports disclosed a severance payment of $96,000 to the Hampton family that ethics groups say should have been reported in campaign records.

“Ensign has criminal issues here that make it more than just an indiscretion,” says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

While it’s Mr. Hampton who allegedly violated the one-year lobbying ban, “Ensign knew about the one-year ban and then decided to ignore it. That’s a conspiracy charge," she said. "From a matter of ethics, I think it’s also quite troubling that Senator Ensign was abusing his Senate office to set up meetings for Hampton’s clients to simply appease Hampton and keep his affair quiet. That’s why he has to go.”

“The Senate has an ethics standard that says they’ll discipline people who bring discredit on the eyes of the Senate, but they don’t,” she adds . “It discredits the Senate in the eyes of the public. It’s exactly what makes people cynical about politics,” she adds.

Many senators have survived scandal and gone on to distinguished Senate careers. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts weathered the 1969 Chappaquiddick accident and forged a historic record as a legislator. Sens. John Glenn (D) of Ohio and John McCain (R) of Arizona were reelected after the 1991 Keating Five corruption investigation, and McCain became the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2008.

By contrast, senators voted in 1989 not to confirm former Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas, when he came before the body for confirmation as Secretary of Defense, over concerns about his drinking habits. Former Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho, who plead guilty to disorderly conduct after an arrest on charges of lewd conduct in an airport restroom, was criticized publicly by Senate GOP leadership. Senator McConnell called Craig’s actions “unforgivable” and Senator Ensign, then chairman of GOP Senate campaign effort, said that he would resign if he were in Craig’s position.

“A lot of indiscretions have been forgotten, and a lot of senators have gone on and been productive,” says Senate historian Donald Ritchie. “But indiscretion is not valued in the Senate.”

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