THE BLOG
08/03/2009 05:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Has John Ensign Not Resigned in Disgrace Yet?

{Originally posted at my blog Senate Guru.}

The Las Vegas Sun's Jon Ralston breaks the following news (HT: PW):

Emails between Ensign NRSC lieutenants, Hamptons show affair was known inside organization more than a year ago

The emails, between Mike Slanker and Doug Hampton and Lindsey Slanker and Cindy Hampton, show the Slankers knew of the affair between John Ensign and Cindy Hampton while they were working in 2008 at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which the senator headed. The previous implication had been they did not know until Ensign's June 16 news conference. Slanker now says he did indeed find out shortly after he hired Hampton, but did not intend to mislead the media.

The Las Vegas Sun story includes links to the actual e-mails.

So, not only did Nevada Republican John Ensign do everything he did, but he brought the NRSC into it, effectively making Ensign's infidelity and cover-up the problem of every Republican U.S. Senator and every donor to the NRSC.

Let's look back. On June 16, Ensign held the press conference where he announced that he had an extra-marital affair. This alone, by Ensign's own standard, should have been enough to lead Ensign to the decision to resign his U.S. Senate seat. By Ensign's own standard? Yup. When President Clinton admitted the details of his own affair, Ensign said that Clinton had "no credibility left" and should resign. But, like many elected officials who are "family values conservatives," Ensign did not come remotely close to living up to his own standard.

The extra-marital affair wasn't the end of the news:

Sen. John Ensign 's parents gave $96,000 to a former campaign staffer with whom he had an extramarital relationship and her family, his attorney said Thursday, denying that the payments violated campaign finance laws or Senate ethics rules.

"The payments were made as gifts, accepted as gifts and complied with tax rules governing gifts," lawyer Paul Coggins said.

There are, of course, several problems with this. First is the optics that this $96,000 (which came in eight $12,000 increments) is very clearly hush money, not a gift. Second is the fact that portions of this money has been described previously not as a gift but as severance payments, which opens up a major legal can of worms for Ensign:

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington questioned whether the payments from the Ensigns to the Hamptons were really "gifts" or actually severance, as Doug Hampton referred to the money in his interview with Ralston.

If they were severance payments to Cynthia Hampton, who had worked as treasurer for two campaign committees controlled by Ensign and whose salary doubled during the affair, Ensign could face criminal charges for failing to disclose the payments to the Federal Election Commission.

Ensign attorney Paul Coggins went to lengths to say they were gifts and understood as gifts. (Ensign's mother and his father each gave $12,000 to each of the Hamptons and to two of their three children. By dividing up the payment into $12,000 increments, they hit the tax-free ceiling for gifts allowed under IRS rules.)

So either the hush money was unreported severance or gifts structured to sneak under IRS rules. Either way, it's clear to anyone with common sense that John Ensign is deeply in the wrong. Though he may still qualify as an ethical member of the Senate's Republican caucus given the frighteningly low ethical bar in that caucus, he clearly has not met the higher standard to which we should hold our U.S. Senators.

Top staffers for Ensign, including his Chief of Staff and Communications Director, have bolted Ensign's office. With still more details coming out in drips and drabs about who knew what when, what is clear is that if John Ensign has an ounce of shame or dignity left, he would resign. He would live up to the standard to which he has held other elected officials, and he would save his Party further disgrace.

If Ensign doesn't resign, he will make his hypocrisy and lack of ethics a problem for every Republican Senator facing election. Keep in mind, Ensign isn't up for re-election until 2012, so it's up to Ensign whether we'll have him to kick around for three and a half years or much less.

UPDATE: Ensign's relying on his mommy & daddy for hush money threatens to impact Ensign's father's business affairs. John Ensign is willing to ruin his own father's career in order to cover his backside. How cowardly is John Ensign?