Ensign not first Nevada politician in legal trouble


It's been more than 100 years since a member of Nevada's congressional delegation faced legal woes worse than those facing Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

In 1907, authorities sought to arrest former Rep. Clarence Van Duzer, D-Nev., who was implicated in a mining stock swindle.

The only thing that kept Van Duzer from the clink was intervention by Capitol police who said the U.S. Constitution prohibited the arrest of a congressman.

"We've really never had anything quite like Van Duzer until now," retired state archivist Guy Rocha said when asked about Ensign, who faces allegations he helped a former aide evade lobbying restrictions in an effort to cover up an extramarital affair with the aide's wife.

"He's the only other member of Congress who got to that threshold."

Still, despite allegations against Ensign that made the front page of the New York Times, the senator asserts he is innocent of running afoul of the law and plans to stay in office.

He's facing an inquiry from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics and, according to public corruption experts, a likely investigation by federal authorities into potential felony violations of lobbying laws.

Although Ensign's predicament is unusual in the history of Nevada's federal delegation, the congressional hall of shame is filled with representatives who stayed in office despite waves of embarrassing revelations, said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

"The resignations are few; that's my only point on it," Herzik said. "This is largely Ensign's decision, unless he is facing an indictment and cutting a deal, politicians in this situation not only control their destiny but usually don't resign."

Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., didn't resign in 2001 when his affair with intern Chandra Levy came to light during an investigation into Levy's slaying.

Condit wasn't implicated in the crime and another man was arrested. But Condit lost in the 2002 Democratic primary and left politics.

Former Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., was implicated in a bribery scheme after authorities found $90,000 hidden in his freezer in 2006. He remained in office and even won another election later that year.

Jefferson was subsequently indicted, lost a re-election bid in 2008, got convicted and is awaiting a sentence that could exceed 20 years in jail.

Former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, faced corruption accusations in 2006 but didn't resign until after the Republican primary that year. By hanging around beyond the primary DeLay vanquished intra-party rivals he considered "gadflies and traitors," according to the Washington Post.

DeLay's delayed exit from politics also allowed him to raise campaign contributions he could divert to his legal defense, a former aide said.

Former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to 30 months in jail in part for violating lobbying restrictions similar to those Ensign is alleged to have committed.

Ney didn't resign until three weeks after his conviction. He proclaimed his innocence up until the day he pleaded guilty, said Melanie Sloan, a former assistant U.S. attorney and director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.

The watchdog group has hounded Ensign since June, when he admitted the affair with former employee Cindy Hampton.

Ensign is embroiled in allegations that he helped former aide Doug Hampton, Cindy Hampton's husband, line up contacts for a career in lobbying that would get him out of the senator's office.

"Ensign's situation is unique because (Nevada has) never had a sex and money scandal," in Congress, said historian Michael Green at the College of Southern Nevada.

Green noted former Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., faced allegations of sexual assault and corruption stemming from his tenure in Congress. But the sexual assault claim came near the end of his term while he was in the race for governor of Nevada, which he won.

The corruption allegations related to a 2007 U.S. Justice Department investigation into whether Gibbons inappropriately steered millions in federal contracts to a defense contractor. The Justice Department cleared Gibbons of any wrongdoing, and police never brought charges in the sexual assault case.

STAYING THE COURSE

Some members of Congress remain in power long after events that would have driven more shame-minded people to the shadows.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., is still peddling moral rhetoric to the public even after he admitted in 2007 to "a very serious sin" after phone records showed calls between him and a Washington, D.C., madam. In addition to his job in the Senate, Vitter is a lector at his church and features his wife and children prominently in messages from his office.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., was embroiled in scandal in 1989 when it came to light his boyfriend operated a prostitution ring out of Frank's apartment. Frank not only remained in office, despite a reprimand. Today, he is chairman of the Committee on Financial Services, the second-largest committee in Congress.

Although history suggests politicians tend to hang on no matter how intense the heat until voters, and sometimes authorities, force them out, there are examples of men who left Washington, D.C., ahead of the posse.

One of them, former Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., left at the behest of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics headed at the time by former Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev.

In 1992, the panel launched an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against Packwood, who was accused of harassing female employees and sexual abuse of women. The investigation widened to include allegations of intimidating witnesses and destruction of evidence.

Packwood resigned in 1995 after the committee recommended his expulsion from the Senate.

In the House of Representatives, former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., resigned in 2006 shortly after ABC News confronted him with evidence of lewd sexual messages he purportedly sent to underage congressional pages.

Sloan, who makes a living highlighting congressional corruption, says silence from peers in the face of scandal contributes to the staying power of disgraced politicians and is "the kind of thing that makes Americans cynical about politicians."

She cited remarks from Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., in response to the Ensign allegations as an example.

The day the New York Times reported that evidence suggested Ensign violated lobbying laws in an effort to cover up the affair, Reid spokesman Jon Summers responded: "Senator Reid believes this is a personal matter between Senator Ensign and his family."

Monday, after Sloan's group highlighted in detail exactly what laws she thinks Ensign broke, Summers responded, "The Senate Ethics Committee is looking into the matter. Considering he appoints members to that committee, Senator Reid believes it would be inappropriate for him to comment."

Sloan said Reid, the Senate majority leader, should more forcefully denounce the wrongdoing Ensign is alleged to have committed.

"That is laughable. It is not a matter between Senator Ensign and his family. This is a matter for the Senate, including the Senate leadership," Sloan said. "If Mr. Ensign's conduct doesn't merit condemnation, whose does?"

As for Van Duzer, he was serving his final day in office by the time authorities caught up with him at the Capitol.

Long accused of running investment scams related to mines, Van Duzer was sued by a woman who was among his victims in 1906. He essentially abandoned his office for a year and didn't seek re-election.

But in a final act of shamelessness, he showed up in Washington, D.C., to sign a pay warrant to receive $1,100 in mileage reimbursement.

Van Duzer took a powder without ever getting the mileage money and drifted around the country, running afoul of authorities and being implicated in myriad scams in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Tennessee. He eventually moved to Passaic, N.J., to practice law. He didn't return to Nevada for good until after his death in 1947, when his cremated remains were spread over the Humboldt River near Winnemucca.

"He left in disgrace, but he completed his term," Rocha said.

Contact Benjamin Spillman at bspillman @reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

 

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