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October 23, 2014

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THE SENATOR’S SCANDAL :

If shockers done, Ensign could stay in office, many say

Doug Hampton interview, part 2 - July 2009

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Doug Hampton interview - July 2009

Exclusive Interview, seg. 2

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Sen. John Ensign with his wife, Darlene, and Cynthia and Doug Hampton.

If this happened to anyone else at any other workplace, the outcome would be certain.

If Sen. John Ensign were, say, a casino manager, and he embarked on an affair with his underling’s wife, who also worked for him, he would be shown the door, or maybe thrown through it.

But like President Bill Clinton before him, Ensign, the second-term Nevada Republican, lives and works by a different set of rules. Ensign’s employer, the people of Nevada, won’t have the power to fire him until 2012.

Ensign has said he will not resign. No Nevada elected official or other person of considerable stature has called for him to resign, and they likely won’t, unless there are more revelations like the one this week that Ensign’s parents paid the family of Cynthia Hampton, with whom he had an affair, nearly $100,000 around the time she left his employ in April 2008.

Observers suggest that the reticence of Nevada Republicans could be due in part to Nevadans’ apparent tolerance for the tawdry. As Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report noted, if Ensign should resign, what about Gov. Jim Gibbons, given the Republican governor’s many scandals and ugly public divorce?

On the other hand, it is possible Ensign’s family, and especially his intensely private father Mike Ensign, will pressure the senator to resign to prevent further public humiliation.

Beyond that, Ensign could face an investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics for bringing disrepute on the upper chamber, as well as the Federal Election Commission if the large payments to the Hampton family are judged to be unreported campaign expenses.

But the machinery of Senate ethics and FEC investigations are so slow and so timid that Ensign could easily finish the remaining three years of his six-year term barely nicked by the imbroglio, Washington insiders say.

Paul Blumenthal, of the Washington watchdog group the Sunlight Foundation, recently summed up a widely held view of Senate Ethics: “The Ethics Committee is, as most know, a black hole where investigations go to die. Anyone remember that Ethics investigation into Sen. Ted Stevens? That’s right, it never happened,” Blumenthal wrote on his blog, referring to the Alaska senator convicted by a jury of accepting gifts from an oil contractor. The conviction was thrown out and the Justice Department chose not to refile charges, but critics say the ethics committee should have acted aside from any criminal case.

Another example: Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, or CREW, launched ethics complaints against Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., for receiving favorable terms on their home mortgages.

That was a year ago.

“It takes them forever,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, which offered ethics and FEC complaints against Ensign last month. “They’re terrible investigators,” she said, adding that although the staff is competent, senators are so reluctant to investigate or discipline their own that the committee is farcical.

David Lublin, a congressional scholar at American University, said, “One gets the sense the Senate would rather have the public process of the person not getting reelected.”

And a Washington lawyer with experience defending and investigating ethics cases said, “Investigating a senator for having an affair with an employee? It would create a panic on the Hill.”

Sloan said she envisions a letter of reprimand for Ensign, but nothing else.

The Senate was poised in 1995 to expel Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., for his serial sexual harassment, but he resigned first — the only time in recent history the Senate has come close to taking tough action.

The Federal Election Commission will investigate Ensign for the unreported $96,000 payment to the Hamptons. The FEC has jurisdiction because Cynthia Hampton was the treasurer of political committees controlled by the senator. If the payment was severance rather than a “gift,” as Ensign’s lawyer claims, the senator may have committed a felony by not reporting it.

But the FEC is not known for quickness or toughness.

“Feckless is a good word. And politically divided,” Lublin said.

“They’re dysfunctional,” Sloan said of the commission.

Sloan has asked the Justice Department to investigate, though prosecutors may not be eager to take up such a politically volatile case, preferring to let voters judge Ensign’s fate.

Although Ensign can likely survive them, these investigations will drag on, as would a potential civil suit by the Hamptons. And, they will produce damaging leaks and possibly new information.

The bottom line for Ensign: Assuming there is not another scandal dropping, he can survive, but it could be brutal.

Sun reporter Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this story.

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