More than one person has compared U.S. Sen. John Ensign’s fall from grace to a Shakespearian tragedy.
But after word broke Thursday that former Ensign top aide, friend and cuckold, Doug Hampton, has been indicted for violating a one-year cooling-off law by returning to lobby, the drama reads more like a reboot of “Moby Dick.” Only in this version, Ahab still dies while the white whale swims off (mostly) unscathed.
It was obvious when Hampton tried to go public with news of his wife’s affair with Ensign that he was on a suicide mission: In order for him to get Ensign, Hampton would have to admit he broke the law and began lobbying Ensign’s office immediately after being dismissed. The fact Hampton claims he did so with Ensign’s permission — and even Ensign’s assistance — drew the senator into legal jeopardy, too.
But now, the Department of Justice has decided not to prosecute Ensign for an alleged conspiracy to violate the cooling-off law, while moving forward with a case against Hampton that’s easy to prove. The newly minted defendant, after all, has already admitted to committing the crime.
The question must be asked: How is it possible for Hampton to be indicted when Ensign was not?
After Hampton confronted Ensign in February 2008 about the affair, Ensign dismissed both Doug Hampton from his job as an administrative assistant and Cindy Hampton from her job keeping books for Ensign’s campaign.
But Ensign arranged for Doug Hampton to find lobbying work in Nevada, enlisting campaign strategist Mike Slanker to hire Doug Hampton. (Interestingly, Ensign did not immediately tell Slanker the real reason for the Hamptons’ abrupt departure from Washington, D.C. Slanker later said the situation “made me sick to my stomach.”)
Ensign made calls to Nevada companies and campaign donors to help Hampton line up clients, and he allowed Hampton to lobby staffers in the Senate office. Ensign personally lobbied on behalf of Hampton’s clients, too, and even met with Hampton and one of his clients, the chief executive officer of Allegiant Airlines, in the Senate dining room in March 2009.
Again, it must be asked: How did the Justice Department look at those facts and decide Hampton was worthy of prosecution, but Ensign was not? (The group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Justice Department, seeking precisely that answer.)
The senator has said in interviews that if laws were broken, they were broken only by Doug Hampton, who was well aware of the law prohibiting former staffers from returning to lobby their former bosses or colleagues within a year of leaving government service. But Hampton could not possibly have violated those laws without Ensign’s assistance. In fact, this will undoubtedly form the basis of Hampton’s defense.
Sadly, however, the case against Hampton is strong, primarily because in Hampton’s quest to destroy Ensign’s political career, he candidly admitted — repeatedly and in public — to knowing and willful violations of the cooling-off law. Surely Hampton could not envision the perverse result, in which he would face jail time but Ensign would escape any legal punishment despite numerous investigations.
It’s true Hampton’s revelations eventually brought Ensign down: The senator announced March 7 that he would not seek re-election, ostensibly to avoid putting his family through an “extraordinarily ugly” campaign.
But in bringing Ensign’s career in public life to an early, involuntary close, Hampton has destroyed his own life in the process, the final victim of a tale of lust, power and revenge worthy of Shakespeare, or of Melville. And no matter how it’s written, Ahab always dies in the end.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. His column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 702-387-5276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.