The following story written by John Bresnahan and Manu Raju appeared in today’s Politico and includes a crystal ball assessment by your favorite News & Views publisher:
Ethics experts say the latest revelations about Sen. John Ensign’s affair with a former aide — including the senator’s efforts to help the mistress’s husband obtain lobbying work — will force the Senate Ethics Committee to begin a full-blown investigation of the Nevada Republican.
In addition, Doug Hampton, a former top staffer for Ensign and husband of Cindy Hampton, Ensign’s mistress, acknowledged engaging in potential criminal acts — failing to register as a lobbyist while advocating for two Nevada corporations and violating the one-year ban on lobbying his former boss after leaving Capitol Hill. This admission could end up moving the case into the purview of the Justice Department, experts say.
“The Senate Ethics Committee is going to have to really look at it,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Sloan’s group had already filed a complaint against Ensign with the ethics panel, as well as the Federal Election Commission, regarding the senator’s dealings with the Hamptons.
Sloan now says she will send another letter to the Ethics Committee, as well as contacting the Justice Department, urging the department to conduct a criminal probe.
Ensign “acted in ways that might constitute honest services fraud,” Sloan said.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that Ensign leaned on his network of financial supporters back in Nevada to give lobbying contracts to Doug Hampton after both Hamptons left his employ in spring 2008. By that time, Doug Hampton had become aware of Ensign’s affair with his wife and the two men — once close friends – had several angry confrontations over the adulterous relationship.
Following the Hamptons’ departure from Ensign’s office, they were given $96,000 by the senator’s family.
According to the Times, Ensign contacted Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former GOP congressman from Illinois, in early 2009 on behalf of Allegiant Air, a Las Vegas-based airline. Doug Hampton was working for the airline at that time, and Maurice Gallagher, Allegiant’s CEO, is a big Ensign financial backer.
The newspaper said that Ensign “also urged Interior Department officials to complete an environmental review for a controversial coal-burning plant under development by a Nevada power company, NV Energy” before former President George W. Bush left office in January 2009. Hampton was lobbying for the utility at that point.
Both companies have since cut their ties to Hampton.
Doug Hampton said that Ensign was aware that the former aide’s contacts with the senator’s office may have violated the one-year lobbying prohibition. “Very senior staff,” those making more than 75 percent of a senator’s salary, are barred from lobbying their former offices for one year after leaving the Senate. Doug Hampton’s 2007 salary of $144,000 put him well above that threshold.
“The only way the clients could get what John was essentially promising them — which was access — was if I still had a way to work with his office,” Doug Hampton told the newspaper. “And John knew that.”
Doug Hampton admitted as well that he never registered to lobby for any of the clients that Ensign helped him obtain.
Since he first publicly confessed to his affair with Cindy Hampton in June — which came about after Doug Hampton contacted Fox News, offering a story on the senator — Ensign has refused to comment on the allegations against him.
During a break in the Finance Committee markup of the health reform package on Thursday night, Ensign told POLITICO that he doesn’t intend to get into the new revelations reported by The New York Times.
“Wish I could help you out, but I’m focused on my work,” Ensign responded repeatedly, no matter which of several questions was asked.
Whether Ensign could be charged for knowingly violating the lobbying prohibition on Doug Hampton is unclear. According to the Times, Ensign tried to get Doug Hampton to go through John Lopez, his former chief of staff, when making requests of the senator. Lopez has denied that his contacts with Hampton violated the lobbying ban.
But ethics experts aren’t so sure that this arrangement would prevent Ensign from facing a criminal probe.
“I think the senator runs the risk of a criminal investigation for violation of the Ethics in Government Act,” said Brett Kappel, an ethics expert with law firm Arent Fox.
Kappel also said the Senate Ethics Committee is likely to conduct a full-scale investigation of Ensign.
“The senator is the only one they [the ethics committee] have jurisdiction over,” Kappel noted, pointing out that both Hamptons and Lopez no longer work for the Senate. Lopez is now a lobbyist with a Nevada public affairs firm.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Ethics Committee, declined to comment on the new Ensign allegations, other than noting that the panel has already said it began a “preliminary review” of the Ensign case following CREW’s complaint this summer.
But Ensign’s own political future now rests firmly in the hands of the Senate Ethics Committee.
Ensign is making clear that he’s not going anywhere, but he remains completely isolated politically — abandoned by top aides, spurned by politicians back home and kept at arm’s length by Republican leaders in Washington.
“I think he does deserve a review, I just find it hard to see that the review is going to exonerate him,” said one senior GOP official in Washington.
The New York Times’ article also marked the first time that Cindy Hampton spoke to the press about her affair.
And it included the sharpest comments to date by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who shares a group house with Ensign on Capitol Hill and served as an intermediary between Doug Hampton and Ensign — including when Hampton sought financial restitution for the affair.
Yet, according to Republicans in Nevada and Washington, Ensign can survive politically barring a sharp rebuke from the Ethics Committee — or if the matter is referred for a criminal investigation.
Chuck Muth, a former executive director of the Nevada Republican Party who has previously called on Ensign to resign, thinks that Ensign has survived the scandal despite the latest allegations against him.
“Unless another woman pops up, it looks like he’s weathered this one,” Muth said.
Ensign has repeatedly denied having other affairs, and he even told prominent Republicans in August during a private meeting that there were no other affairs even though he had heard that Nevada reporters were investigating the matter, according to people familiar with the account.