Journalism in the Public Interest

A Cheat Sheet for Former Sen. Ensign’s Ethics Saga


Then-Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., listens during a hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on March 11, 2010 on Capitol Hill. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It’s been a couple years now since the troubles of now-former Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign first hit headlines, but given that the Senate Ethics Committee just yesterday referred Ensign’s case to the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission, it may be time for a quick refresher.

According to the committee’s 75-page report, Ensign likely broke federal law and Senate rules when he tried to cover up his extramarital affair with the wife of a close aide. The report noted that investigators were careful not to seek details of the affair itself—that is “generally the couple’s own business to deal with,” it said—but focused instead on how efforts to conceal the affair broke ethics rules.

The lawmaker resigned from his post last week—just one day before he was scheduled to be questioned by the panel under oath, the report said. The resignation allowed Ensign to both avoid that deposition and ultimately avoid disciplinary action by the committee that could have included being thrown out of the Senate. From the report, emphasis ours:

Had Senator Ensign not resigned the Special Counsel would have recommended that the Committee initiate an adjudicatory review for the purpose of considering the appropriateness of disciplinary action against the Senator. The Special Counsel is confident that the evidence that would have been presented in an adjudicatory hearing would have been substantial and sufficient to warrant the consideration of the sanction of expulsion.

Talking Points Memo has you covered on the juicy details of the scandal itself. As far as the former lawmaker’s ethical and legal violations go, the report found evidence that after his affair, Ensign crossed the line when he: fired both his lover, Cindy Hampton, and her husband; made a $96,000 severance payment to the Hamptons; gave Hampton lobbying contacts; and—stop for a breath—deleted and destroyed documents and files that could be used in legal proceedings against him. (The Associated Press has a timeline of most of these events.)

In doing so, the report found that Ensign likely violated his own Senate office policies against sexual harassment and obstructed justice by ignoring a formal notice to keep all documents once the panel began its inquiry. The report also alleged that the severance payments amounted to an unlawful and unreported campaign contribution, and that both Ensign and his parents lied to or misled the FEC about the payment.

Ensign also pressured constituents to hire John Hampton and reportedly told his chief of staff to tell a constituent that he was “cut off” from Ensign after he declined to hire Hampton, the panel detailed. Once Hampton became a lobbyist, the continued contact between Hampton and Ensign’s office violated rules requiring a “cooling-off” period before congressional staff-turned-lobbyists lobby their old offices, according to the ethics report.

Hampton was indicted for violating this lobbying ban in March, although that indictment did not name Ensign, the New York Times noted. (The Times compiled a document trail of communications between the two.)

Ensign has publicly admitted the affair but has maintained he didn't do anything illegal.  

“While I stand behind my firm belief that I have not violated any law, rule, or standard of conduct of the Senate, and I have fought to prove this publicly, I will not continue to subject my family, my constituents, or the Senate to any further rounds of investigation, depositions, drawn out proceedings, or especially public hearings,” he said in his resignation letter.

The Justice Department dropped an earlier investigation of Ensign late last year without bringing charges. The FEC also dismissed a complaint against him. If neither of those agencies take up the ethics committee’s referral, Ensign may end up facing few consequences besides embarrassment.

Did you also do a cheat sheet on Charlie Rangel?

I think you get a cheat sheet on Ensign but special stationery for Charlie Rangel.

@ John Seibel

You don’t think they actually do journalism here at Media Matters lite … do you? Perhaps if some day Rangle runs afoul of the Sandlers or Soros I’m sure PP will turn its attention on him then.

Speaking of which, with all of ProPublica’s emphasis on the housing meltdown and subprime market doesn’t anyone else find it odd that we’ve never heard of Golden West Financial’s involvement in the subprime market? Wonder why that is?

One of these days, Marian Wang, there’ll be an amendment to the U.S. Constitution for disingenuous public ‘servants’ like John Ensign, R-NV (and Rangel, and others) for committing White Collar Crimes.  Ensign should lose all retirement, healthcare and other after-resignation benefits for his immoral/illegal/unlawful behavior.

“We, The People” need an opportunity through an Article V Convention to begin eliminating institutionalized corruption at the federal level.  It’s well past time.

When will ProPublica do an exposé on WHY Congress has not called an Article V Amendments Convention—750 applications have already been submitted by 49 of the 50 States, yet the U.S. Constitution only requires 34 applications!  Congress is denying “We, The People” our Constitutional rights; it seems like THAT would be a vital story for ProPublica and Marian Wang to publish.  Is the John Ensign story more important?

It’s Doug Hampton.

Notice that Ensign chooses to keep his generous defined-benefit retirement and government- sponsored healthcare benefit, but he railed about the absolute need to take these away from common people. That’s what I call “family values”. Just like the ones for organized crime, FOX News and the healthcare insurance lobby.

How much has all of this nonsense cost the American taxpayers and why shouldn’t John Ensign have to reimburse for the cost of the investigation?  What a colossal waste of so many resources, not to mention lives.  And I agree about Charlie Rangel - he should not be exempt from scrutiny.  In his case, there is so much to untangle it may just be overwhelming - where to begin on that one?

Ensign is person from a family with substanial monies. He took his family’s money and bought a seat in the US Senate from a State with a miserable record of running and electing character’s of dubious distinction. Ensign was a bum and now he’s gone by his own hand.

The real issue here is not John Ensign but rather Tom Coburn. Mr. Coburn conspired with Mr. Ensign to defeat several investigative authorities, and who knows who or what else. Mr. Coburn is still there probably conspiring with others but obviously up to no good.

I’d like to say these guys were just two lawyers cooking up a story but in this case, both are doctors. Are we now to look at doctors the same way we look at lawyers?

When Mr. Coburn became caught up in his conspiratorial activities he then pled his Religion as a minister, his Medical Profession as a doctor to avoid discovery. Unfortunately, Mr. Coburn takes his disregard of moral issues to even a higher level the Mr. Ensign.

Someone should be looking at Mr. Coburn, ethics aren’t about your friends, ethics are about ethics.

Still trying to figure out if the timing of Ensign’s resignation has an impact on his retirement status. I may have missed it in the stories, but I’m wondering if he was at a point where he would have lost benefits if the ethics case had gone any further.

Congratulations.  Pro Publica must be getting more traction in the media and getting on some nerves based on some of the initial comments referring to Charles Rangel, who, after all, was sanctioned by his colleagues and whose alleged crimes appear to be far less egregious (i.e. destroying evidence, bribing employees etc.)
That’s the trouble with investigative journalism.  Somebody always thinks you should investigate someone else.

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