If nothing else, we now know exactly why U.S. Sen. John Ensign quit: Had he stayed on to fight the Senate Ethics Committee’s considerable case against him, he could have faced expulsion from world’s most exclusive club.
As for the rest — his affair with Cindy Hampton, the wife of his then-best friend, Doug Hampton, and the subsequent violation of the law that imposes a one-year cooling-off period before former Senate employees can lobby their former colleagues and employers — well, that was always an open-and-shut case.
The 75-page report by Special Counsel Carol Elder Bruce, released Thursday, does add some important details. Among them:
• After Ensign set Doug Hampton up in a lobbying job, the senator took steps to conceal Hampton’s activities. He imposed a "shredding policy," encouraged the use of Gmail accounts (which are not archived by the Senate) and ordered Hampton to go through a single employee when contacting the office.
The work to conceal Hampton’s activities is powerful evidence of a guilty mind, and it directly contradicts Ensign’s repeated self-serving assertions that he broke no laws or Senate rules. If that were so, why would Ensign take steps to conceal Hampton’s lobbying? And why, as the report also states, would Ensign delete documents after receiving notices that he should preserve them?
• The $96,000 payment made by Ensign’s parents, Mike and Sharon Ensign, to the Hampton family was, in fact, a severance payment. Ensign has denied that allegation, and his lawyer risibly claimed the payment was part of a "pattern of generosity" between Mike and Sharon Ensign and the Hamptons.
But Bruce’s report says Ensign himself called the payment a "severance," both in discussions with witnesses and in drafts of a news release before an attorney pointed out the obvious problem. If it was severance, it could be considered an illegal donation to Ensign’s campaign and/or an unofficial (and prohibited) Senate office account. It was only on the advice of his counsel that Ensign began referring to the payment as something else.
Moreover, the report finds, there was no pattern of generosity between Ensign’s parents and the Hamptons. In fact, the report says the relationship was "contentious," and "the senior Ensigns had never given a single gift from the Ensign Family Trust Fund of the size of the Hampton payment to any non-family member, and also had no pattern or practice of giving significant gifts to any friends of their children."
• Ensign’s affair with Cindy Hampton violated his own office policy against sexual harassment and fraternization. Recall, this is the same Ensign who said he’d never be alone with a female staffer, ostensibly to avoid either temptation or false allegations. Bruce asks a compelling question: If Ensign’s affair violated his own office policy on sexual harassment, how much more does it constitute "improper conduct that reflects upon the Senate"?
But a significant question remains, now that the Ethics Committee has referred the matter to the Justice Department. Because the Justice Department already has considered the case and rejected it, how can it now proceed against Ensign?
If attorneys claim new information has come to light, do they not have to concede the Ethics Commission succeeded in finding material that eluded the FBI? And if they admit no new information was unearthed, how can they explain their earlier reluctance to prosecute?
The alternative — sticking with the idea that there’s no case — is contradicted by the report and by John Ensign’s own words and actions. To allow him to escape justice — especially while Doug Hampton faces indictment — seems an unconscionable outrage.
Political columnist Steve Sebelius is author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@ reviewjournal.com.