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September 22, 2014

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Why Sen. Ensign should be worried about possible indictment

In the federal penal code, it is known as “structuring.”

And it is a word Sen. John Ensign should remember because it is very likely to be on any indictment with his name on it.

That’s what I am told by a reliable source familiar with the deliberations occurring inside the Justice Department as federal authorities in Washington try to do with Ensign what they could not do with former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens: Get their man. Or, because they had Stevens and then lost him because of misconduct, Justice wants to make sure if it goes to the next step with Ensign, the charges stick.

Structuring is a broad term that refers to the crime of creating financial transactions to evade reporting requirements — for example, a $96,000 payment to your mistress laundered through a trust controlled by your parents and calling it a “gift” instead of what it obviously was: a severance payment that had to be reported.

That the feds are looking at structuring as a possible crime will not surprise many old hands who have watched the sordid Ensign saga play out, morphing from a fairly grotesque he-slept-with-his-best-friend’s-wife-who-was-also-his-wife’s-best-friend story to a fantastically creepy tale of a senator trying to keep the cuckolded husband quiet by any means necessary, including, perhaps, structuring transactions with businesses in exchange for campaign contributions.

Maybe Ensign won’t be indicted. Maybe he will resign in exchange for not being indicted. Maybe he will serve out his term or even be re-elected. Would that be any more incredible than anything else we have seen?

Two former federal prosecutors in the past two weeks have said there is enough evidence to indict Ensign. “Just based on what the senator has said himself and what Mr. (Doug) Hampton has said … under the federal standard of probable cause, there’s enough to indict the senator now,” ex-prosecutor Stan Hunterton, a well-respected local attorney, said March 19 on “Face to Face.” Then, Thursday on the program, Melanie Sloan, the former federal prosecutor who now heads a D.C. watchdog group that has filed several complaints against Ensign, said, “I completely think” Hunterton is right.

The question is how Justice might, ahem, structure a deal with Ensign. It is clear from observers — and from those who know the thinking inside the Justice Department — that the Stevens debacle has cast a shadow over the Ensign case.

The department is being very deliberate in assembling a case against Ensign. But Justice has a mountain of documents and e-mails that, combined with the senator’s own admissions or statements in e-mails, would seem to amount to a formidable case. And last week’s New York Times story, showing how Ensign’s contacts with a local company (similar to several other interactions), show how far the senator was willing to go to get Hampton work, mostly while he was employed by ex-Ensign aides who had formed a lobbying/consulting firm. The structure, so to speak, is becoming more transparent all the time.

This drip-drip-drip of revelation seems to have left Ensign unfazed, like a man who is slowly drowning but believes he can rise above it — or, perhaps, deludes himself into thinking he can walk on water. But as Republicans here and in Washington play the pathetic see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil game vis-a-vis Ensign, it is becoming more obvious that their craven behavior could be self-defeating.

If Ensign gets indicted, he will become a national and state nightmare for the GOP. National Democrats will brandish him as a symbol of corruption (they may anyhow) and local Democrats will wrap the junior senator around the GOP Senate nominee’s neck, especially because Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian foolishly have said they would welcome his support. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid directly go after his pal to boost his sagging fortunes. I can hear it now: “Sorry, John. But now you know how Doug Hampton feels — how it feels to be screwed over by your best friend.”

Why are the national and state Republicans mute? Cowardice, perhaps? Or is it, as NBC political guru Chuck Todd tweeted Friday, repeating something he previously said on “Face to Face” a couple of weeks ago: “NV/DC GOPers desperate to wait for Gov. Gibbons to be out of office before pushing Ensign out but can they really (http://nyti.ms/91kElt)?”

The Web link in Todd’s tweet is to last week’s Times story, emphasizing the point that if the Republicans wait too long, their silence could be very costly. And if Ensign gets indicted and no prominent Republican has called for him to resign, there’s no way to structure that deal to the GOP’s benefit.

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