There was never any doubt that Doug Hampton broke the law.
Hampton, former U.S. Sen. John Ensign’s ex-top aide and ex-best friend, candidly and publicly admitted he’d lobbied Ensign’s office and Ensign himself on behalf of clients shortly after leaving Ensign’s employ. That ran afoul of federal law, which requires ex-senior staffers to refrain from any lobbying activity for one year.
Last week, Hampton pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of that law, admitting in court what he’d already said in public. He’s to be sentenced in September, where he faces six months in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
But before the case fades from memory, it’s worth repeating one last time: If Hampton is guilty – as he most assuredly is – then Ensign must be guilty, too. And while Hampton faced prosecution, Ensign walked away without facing any criminal scrutiny. Yes, he was forced to give up something he obviously prized very highly: his seat in the Club of 100. But his own complicity in the scandal that ended his career will likely never be pursued by the Justice Department that brought an impoverished Hampton to heel.
It all started when Ensign began an affair with Cindy Hampton, Doug Hampton’s wife and the best friend of Ensign’s wife, Darlene. The affair continued even after Doug Hampton learned about it and brought pressure on Ensign to stop.
Doug Hampton understandably left Ensign’s employ, but in the process – and far less understandably – he inveighed Ensign to help him earn a living outside of Washington, D.C. Ensign readily agreed, and took several steps to help Hampton. Among them:
– He contacted several Nevada businesses and asked them to hire Doug Hampton. Most businesses, including NV Energy and Allegiant Airlines, agreed. When political consultant Sig Rogich refused, an angry Ensign instructed his compliant chief of staff, John Lopez, to express Ensign’s displeasure to Rogich, and inform Rogich he should not contact Ensign’s office in the future.
– Ensign designated Lopez to be Doug Hampton’s point of contact in his office for all lobbying business. This had the effect of ensuring that other staffers would not learn that Doug Hampton was engaged in illegal lobbying during his “cooling-off” period.
– Ensign asked his longtime political consultant, Mike Slanker, to set Doug Hampton up at Slanker’s then-dormant firm, November Inc. Slanker agreed, although he later confronted Ensign when he discovered the reason for the request was Ensign’s affair. Even after Slanker learned of the affair, however, he continued to allow Doug Hampton to use his firm to get clients, although he later said the situation “makes me sick to my stomach,” and if his firm had been used to break the law, “I’m going to make it right.”
– Ensign took official actions on behalf of Hampton’s clients, including making a call to the secretary of transportation to get her department to back off on challenging Allegiant’s online pricing practices. Ensign met with Doug Hampton and his clients in the Senate dining room. And Lopez took other actions to assist Hampton’s lobbying.
All of which constitutes, at the very least, conspiracy to violate the cooling-off statute. That’s why a special counsel reported to the Senate Ethics Committee there was “substantial credible evidence” that Ensign engaged in “improper conduct reflecting upon the Senate,” as well as other offenses. And that’s why the Democratic chairwoman and Republican vice-chair of the committee referred Ensign’s case to the Justice Department for review.
Thus far, at least, that review has never come. Meanwhile, Hampton – who lost his wife, his Las Vegas home, his reputation, his prospects for making a living and his dignity – is the only person to officially be held to account.
Ensign currently works in Las Vegas as a veterinarian.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.