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November 21, 2014

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The Senator’s Scandal:

In latest blow, Ensign’s top staffers depart

Communications director, chief of staff resign as old, new questions dog Ensign

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ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE

Sen. John Ensign talks with reporters last month on his way to a vote. Recently, the Nevada Republican has been working on popular legislation to bolster his standing in the wake of the revelation that he had an affair with a then-campaign staffer.

First to go were the interns.

Days after Republican Sen. John Ensign admitted an affair, e-mail from his office intercepted by The Washington Post asked if any others on the Hill had room for “some really great interns that want to relocate to another office.”

Last week Ensign announced a wholesale shake-up of his top staff.

Ensign’s chief of staff, John Lopez, is stepping down after spending much of his professional career with the senator, as is his communications director, Tory Mazzola.

Lopez has no job lined up, but has been in talks with the Washington, D.C., office of R&R Partners, the venerable lobbying and advertising shop headquartered in Nevada, a source confirmed Monday.

Mazzola and his wife, who expect their first child in December, are relocating to New Hampshire, where they have family. Mazzola will work for the National Republican Congressional Committee as its Northeast regional spokesman.

The changes come as Ensign, his career shaken, is trying to get back to legislative normalcy — authoring crowd-pleasing legislation to help military families, and supporting a bill to make service dogs more widely available for injured vets.

Questions remain unanswered about the senator’s relationship with Cynthia Hampton, a campaign staffer when the affair started in late 2007. Her husband, Doug Hampton, was a top Ensign aide at the time. The affair ended in August 2008.

And new questions are emerging.

The latest is why Mazzola received a 50 percent salary increase during the six months from April 2008 to September 2008, about the time the Hamptons stopped working for the senator.

In April the senator’s parents paid $96,000 to the Hampton family — a payment Ensign’s attorney said is a gift but an ethics group wants investigated.

Senate records show Mazzola was paid nearly $35,000 for the half-year from spring to fall in 2007, and again for the six months from fall 2007 to spring 2008, according to legistorm.com.

But for April to September 2008, the spokesman’s pay shot up to nearly $53,000 without an overt change in job title.

Those familiar with Senate office pay structure said the sudden increase could have been for various reasons: New duties, accumulated vacation pay or a bonus. One-time bonuses, especially at the holidays or end of the fiscal year as this was, are common.

Salaries are set at the discretion of the office, so long as they do not exceed the senator’s pay.

During the next reporting period, from October 2008 to April 2009, Mazzola’s salary dropped to $45,000, or about 15 percent.

Ensign’s office on Monday declined to respond to questions about the salary boost.

Mazzola is being replaced by Rebecca Fisher, who had a brief stint as Ensign’s spokeswoman at the Senate Republican Policy Committee when the senator became chairman this year. Ensign resigned the No. 4 party leadership post after going public with the affair.

Before that, Fisher headed up communications for the senator when he was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm, during the 2006-2008 election cycle.

Fisher earned mixed reviews on the Hill for her work during a tough election year. Republicans lost eight Senate seats and, after Sen. Arlen Specter’s switch from Republican to Democrat, handed Democrats the coveted 60-seat filibuster-proof majority.

The campaign office had been run by Ensign’s Nevada political crew, and Fisher sometimes appeared to be an outsider.

Fisher is reportedly married to Ensign ally Robert Fisher, a Verizon lobbyist.

Records show both she and her husband are former staffers of the Senate Commerce Committee, where Ensign played an active role until Republicans lost the majority in 2007.

Reports show Rebecca and Robert Fisher worked for Republican Sen. John McCain, and Rebecca Fisher worked on McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.

Perhaps more significant is the departure of Lopez, the longtime aide who has been with Ensign since he first came to Congress in 1995.

Friendly and knowledgeable, Lopez is known in both Washington and Nevada as a loyal staffer. A Nevadan, Lopez rose through the ranks and was in line to be chief of staff in fall 2006, but ended up sharing duties with Doug Hampton, the senator’s friend — a newcomer to Washington who was hired by Ensign that fall.

Lopez is being replaced by lobbyist Aaron Cohen, a lesser-known former Ensign staffer who also worked for former Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan. Cohen works in government relations at the firm Kimbell & Associates in Washington.

Ensign was again on the Senate floor last week, his second floor speech in as many weeks, as he tried to resume normal duties even as questions continue.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is seeking an FBI investigation into the $96,000 payment Ensign’s parents made to the Hampton family, as well as reviews before the Federal Election Commission and Senate Ethics Committee.

Ensign’s attorney has said the payment was a gift to the Hampton family during a difficult time. But Doug Hampton said the senator paid his wife severance upon her departure and did not list the money as gifts on a Senate disclosure form.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics maintains that if the $96,000 was severance, rather than a gift, Ensign could face felony violation of campaign finance law for not reporting the in-kind donation to the campaign committee where she worked.

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