Watchdog group adds Ensign to list

Don't look for Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., to add this distinction to his official Web site anytime soon.

On Tuesday, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group added the embattled Ensign to its list of the 15 most corrupt members of Congress.

The dubious honor puts Ensign in a league with a House member who says he forgot to report more than $500,000 in assets. Former list members were busted for stunts such as hiding $90,000 in a freezer, and another went to prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington compiles the list annually. There are eight Democrats and seven Republicans on the list.

The organization recognized Ensign for being busted for having an extramarital affair with a staff member that was followed by $96,000 in payments from his parents to the family of the woman involved in the affair.

"Members of Congress who have behaved the worst make it in there," Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group, said of the list.

Sloan, whose group has filed complaints against Ensign with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics and the Federal Election Commission, says the mistress money isn't a gift -- as Ensign's lawyer has described it -- but a severance, which could be a violation of federal campaign finance law.

"It seems unlikely (the payments) are gifts," Sloan said. "I'd like to see the paperwork showing they are gifts."

A representative for Ensign said, "We have no comment," in response to the listing.

Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report says it is still possible for Ensign to be an effective senator despite the career-threatening scandal.

"There is a strong incentive for him to get past it by doing his work," Rothenberg said.

That said, Ensign's once popular name has lost so much cachet in his home state that Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Montandon recently attacked opponent Brian Sandoval by linking him to Ensign.

"People will look to link their opponents with Ensign as a way of discrediting them. I think this is really standard political behavior," Rothenberg said. "It does reflect the fact he has received a lot of negative news attention. If you are running a campaign, you don't want negative vibes associated with you."

The other Senate newcomer to the 5-year-old list is Roland Burris, D-Ill., best known as the man deposed Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich picked to fill the Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama. Burris' ethics issues stem from the circumstances surrounding his appointment, the organization said.

"Burris offered at least three different explanations under oath of how he came to be appointed to the Senate," the group's Web site says.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who is the subject of two House ethics investigations, failed to report at least $500,000 in assets on his 2007 congressional disclosure form, according to an amended report he filed this month.

Of this year's list of 15, 12 are under investigation either by the Department of Justice or other agencies.

Alumnae of the list include former Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who is facing possible prison time after a bribery investigation turned up $90,000 in cash in his freezer and evidence of other illicit gains, and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif.

In 2006, Cunningham was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison for accepting $2.4 million in bribes that helped him finance a fancy house, a luxury car and a yacht.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at or 702-477-3861.