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A fine, but no more justice for John Ensign

Remember John Ensign? He’s the Republican U.S. senator who seduced the wife of his best friend and chief of staff, fired both in order to continue his assignations and then ultimately resigned after a year of sensational headlines concerning secret payments and violations of federal lobbying laws.

These days, Ensign has resumed his veterinary practice in Summerlin. But he recently agreed to pay a $32,000 fine to the Federal Election Commission after a general counsel’s investigation found that payments to his mistress — made by Ensign’s parents, Mike and Sharon — constituted a violation of campaign finance laws.

So we can now formally add Mike and Sharon Ensign to the list of people enmeshed in Ensign’s web of lies.

Already on the list was Doug Hampton, Ensign’s onetime best friend and top aide. It was after Hampton repeatedly confronted Ensign about the senator’s affair with Hampton’s wife, Cynthia, that Ensign fired both. But Ensign worked out an agreement that he and everyone else involved referred to as “severance.”

But when the $96,000 check finally came, it was written from Mike and Sharon Ensign’s family trust, structured in a form so as to avoid federal taxes. And after Ensign got word from his lawyer that a “severance” agreement could be problematic, everybody involved referred to the money as a “gift” bestowed by Ensign’s parents to the wronged Hampton family.

That was a lie, but it initially fooled the FEC. However, after the Senate Ethics Committee conducted a more in-depth investigation, the FEC’s general counsel concluded at least part of the $96,000 payment was actually an illegal contribution to Ensign’s campaign committees from his parents. Hence, the $32,000 fine.

That means, by inducing his parents to pay what amounts to hush money to the Hampton family, Ensign landed them in legal trouble.

Hampton himself later went public with the affair, admitting that he’d worked with Ensign to start a lobbying business, one in direct violation of a federal law that prohibits former Senate aides from lobbying senators for a year after they leave their government jobs. Hampton — destitute and divorced from Cynthia — later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation.

Former aides to Ensign were questioned by federal investigators throughout the incident, and fellow U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., received a public letter of qualified admonition for meeting with Hampton to be lobbied in violation of the cooling-off law.

But if Coburn broke a rule and Hampton broke the law, Ensign must be guilty, too. (Ensign actually took a lobbying meeting in the Senate dining room with Hampton and a Hampton client.) Ensign escaped what was sure to be a brutal deposition by resigning his Senate seat the day before he was to meet with investigators, thus putting him beyond the reach of the Senate Ethics Committee. And although the committee referred its thick investigative file to the Justice Department, no charges have been pursued against Ensign. The FEC’s $32,000 fine — and the latest official conclusion that Ensign broke the law — may be the last official justice the ex-senator ever faces.

That seems entirely unfair, given that Ensign’s indiscretions destroyed a marriage and a friendship and ensnared ex-aides, Senate colleagues and even his own parents in a legal morass created because the onetime Promise Keeper failed to keep his promise to his own wife.

We live in a time ripe with stories of redemption — especially for hypocritical right-wingers who followed their lusts into scandal, such as Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and re-elected Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. In case Ensign ever considers a return to politics, it may be helpful for voters to remember that he lied to them, too.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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