Inside the Beltway, the term "ethics enforcement" has almost become an oxymoron over the past decade. For this reason, it is good news to hear that FBI agents have begun interviewing people connected to the scandal surrounding Sen. John Ensign (R-NV). This revelation, combined with the fact that the Senate Ethics Committee issued subpoenas last month to several former Ensign aides, suggests the senator may face repercussions for his unethical -- and likely illegal -- conduct.
Some may view the Ensign matter as nothing more than a sex scandal given that the ethics issues surfaced only after the senator confessed to an extramarital affair with former campaign aide Cynthia Hampton -- who is married to another former Ensign staffer, Doug Hampton. As repugnant as the news of this affair was for many of Sen. Ensign's constituents, there are larger and more serious issues that the FBI and Senate ethics committee likely are investigating.
The first involves the $96,000 payment Sen. Ensign's parents made in April 2008 to Ms. Hampton and her family. Was this a gift, as Sen. Ensign now claims, or a severance payment, as Mr. Hampton's contemporaneous notes of a conversation he had with the senator indicate? If severance, Sen. Ensign may face felony charges for failing to report the payment to the Federal Election Commission.
A second issue is whether Sen. Ensign violated the lobbying ban by helping Mr. Hampton become a lobbyist, going so far as to solicit clients for him and intervening with federal regulators on behalf of Mr. Hampton's clients. For example, Sen. Ensign contacted the top executive of NV Energy, Nevada's largest power company, asking him to hire Mr. Hampton. The New York Times reported that once Mr. Hampton was retained by the company, he discussed with Sen. Ensign's chief of staff when the senator could intervene by urging the Interior Department to finalize an environmental assessment of a coal-burning plant.
Similarly, Sen. Ensign asked Allegiant Air to hire Mr. Hampton. At the time, the airline was being investigated by the transportation department for deceptively adding convenience charges to airline tickets purchased through the Internet. As the airline's lobbyist, Mr. Hampton arranged for Sen. Ensign to meet with transportation department officials and object to the investigation.
When CNN asked Sen. Ensign last month about Doug Hampton's lobbying activities and the one-year lobbying ban, the senator replied, "That's his problem, that's not my problem." But if Sen. Ensign conspired to help Mr. Hampton violate the one-year lobbying ban, it's the senator's problem too.
Although these are the major criminal issues, there are other disturbing questions the Senate ethics committee should explore. For example, did Sen. Ensign engage in sexual harassment by firing Mr. and Ms. Hampton once the affair ended? And did the senator improperly use his authority to hire and pay Brandon Hampton to work as an intern at the NRSC, not because of his qualifications, but as some sort of gift to his then-mistress, Ms. Hampton?
The fact that the FBI is investigating Sen. Ensign's conduct sends an important message: no one -- not even a powerful U.S. senator -- is above the law. Now that Sen. Ensign will no longer be able to ignore his mounting legal woes, he should resign and let a new senator focus on the critical issues facing the people of Nevada.
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