WASHINGTON — Sen. John Ensign of Nevada was only beginning to emerge from a self-imposed political exile over fallout from his extramarital affair with a campaign aide. Now, tawdry new details about the case are raising fresh questions whether Ensign can be re-elected in 2012 – or even face criminal charges over his behavior.
If Ensign was looking for signs of support among Republican leaders on Capitol Hill on Friday, he didn't get any. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell declined repeatedly to answer questions about Ensign or offer any support. Other Republicans, already effectively a 60-40 minority in the Senate, also met the latest developments with silence, wary of speaking out until they see evidence of wrongdoing uncovered by the Senate ethics committee or federal law enforcement.
Ensign's one-time presidential ambitions imploded this summer after disclosures about the affair – including reports of his own efforts to hide it by finding a consulting and lobbying job for his mistress' husband, Doug Hampton, arranging for a $96,000 payment to the couple and doling out a promotion and pay raises to his mistress around the time of the affair. Ensign responded by keeping a low profile, rarely speaking to reporters and apologizing in meetings with constituents and Republican leaders in Nevada.
But in recent weeks, Ensign had started to play a more visible role on Capitol Hill. He managed the debate for Republicans on a bill designed to increase international tourism in the United States – a key issue for his home state. And although Ensign hasn't had a hand in shaping the landmark health care legislation, he has been a vocal critic of Democratic proposals and has offered several amendments during the seven-plus days of debate on the subject.
Ensign began to inch back out from the shadow of the scandal this week, during the Senate Finance Committee hearings on health care overhaul. He even broached a subject that, broadly, might have been sensitive for him: trust.
"I have a little alert to tell Washington," Ensign said during the televised hearings. "The people don't trust us. They don't trust us to make these decisions."
Now, Ensign is making himself scarce again, after The New York Times reported that he helped Hampton find work as a lobbyist and that Hampton lobbied Ensign on behalf of his clients. Hampton told the newspaper that he and Ensign were aware of a ban on Hampton's lobbying his former boss or Ensign's staff, but chose to ignore it.
Neither Hampton nor his attorney, Daniel J. Albregts, returned telephone calls to The Associated Press for comment. Ensign's office responded to the Times story with an e-mail noting that it had previously been publicized that the senator helped Hampton get two jobs. Ensign's office did not reply to further questions.
Federal criminal law prohibits congressional aides from lobbying their ex-bosses or office colleagues for one year after departing their Hill jobs.
"If the aide's actions violate one of the federal criminal statutes relating to lobbying, the question is whether there's potential conspiracy for the senator," said Lance Cole, a law professor at Penn State University's Dickinson School of Law and a former special counsel for Democrats in the Senate Whitewater investigation of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Hampton told the Times that, in coordination with the senator and his staff, he played a significant role in pushing the Washington agendas of NV Energy, the largest power company in Nevada, and Allegiant Air, a Las Vegas-based discount airline.
"It's time for Ensign to resign and there's new evidence relating to lobbying to support a criminal investigation," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that formerly filed a complaint with the Senate on the case.
Ensign's troubles have tarnished his standing in Nevada. Before the affair was disclosed, Ensign was arguably the most popular politician in the state, said Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. His favorability ratings were at 53 percent compared with unfavorable ratings of 18 percent.
Those numbers steadily eroded over the summer to the point that Ensign's favorability rating hovered at 30 percent in August, while his unfavorability rating stood at 37 percent.
"The only good news in those numbers is that he's not up (for re-election) until 2012," Coker said.
Ensign previously resigned as head of the Republican Policy Committee after acknowledging the affair. Political experts said he was hopeful of riding out the scandal until his re-election in 2012 – plenty of time in political terms for any potential probes to play out.
"The issue is perhaps facing his accusers, but he doesn't stand for re-election until 2012," said Fred Lokken, a political scientist as Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. "I think time is on his side."
But for Ensign, "it's the gift that keeps on giving," said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at University of Nevada in Reno. "He can't shake this."
Democrats see opportunity in Ensign's troubles.
On Wednesday, Sue Lowden, the state Republican Party's former chairwoman, announced she would run against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee immediately sent out press releases noting her past statements saying that she hoped Ensign became "part and parcel of what's going to be a very vigorous campaign."
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington and Sandra Chereb in Nevada contributed to this report.