Investigating Mr. Ensign

Thursday, December 2, 2010; 7:20 PM

THE JUSTICE Department has decided not to pursue criminal charges against Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) for his efforts to find lobbying work for the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair. Likewise, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) dismissed a related complaint concerning $96,000√ that Mr. Ensign's parents paid to the mistress and her family. Before the senator claims vindication, a review of his actions is in order - including, we would hope, by the Senate Ethics Committee.

It was in June 2009 that Mr. Ensign acknowledged he had had an adulterous relationship with Cynthia Hampton, a family friend who worked in his campaign and who was the wife of his top Senate aide. Mr. Ensign's candor about the affair came after the embittered husband, Douglas Hampton, sent a letter to Fox News disclosing the affair and describing how "the actions by Senator Ensign has ruined our lives and careers and left my family in shambles." Troubling details emerged about how Mrs. Hampton had been promoted around the time of the affair and how her son ended up working for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, then chaired by Mr. Ensign. Most curious was the payment from an account controlled by Mr. Ensign's father of $96,000 in April 2008 to Mrs. Hampton, her husband and two of their children. Mr. Ensign said the money, paid after he told his parents about the affair, was made "out of concern for the well-being of longtime family friends during a difficult time." The New York Times had a different take, reporting the senator had previously told the Hamptons he wanted them to leave their jobs and the payment was to be severance. In dismissing a complaint that the payment violated federal election law, the FEC said it did not have enough evidence to prove the money was anything other than a gift.

More unsettling than this payment was how Mr. Hampton left his $144,000 job in Mr. Ensign's office and, courtesy of Mr. Ensign's entreaties to political backers, secured lucrative work as a lobbyist. Even more troubling, Mr. Ensign ended up advocating for the interests of those who had hired Mr. Hampton. The Times reported, for example, that in July 2008, Mr. Ensign, after a request from Mr. Hampton, called Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters to plead the case of an airline having a dispute with her department. Federal law prohibits congressional aides from lobbying their former bosses or other colleagues for one year after departing their government jobs. Mr. Ensign has said his actions were unrelated to Mr. Hampton's efforts and that he "complied strictly with all the rules and laws of the ethics of the Senate."

We're now waiting to see if the Senate Ethics Committee, conducting its probe into this matter, believes Mr. Ensign has behaved in the way U.S. senators should behave.

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