John Ensign draws call to resign
Sen. John Ensign is facing an increasingly uncertain future in the Senate, with a senior Democrat saying that the Nevada Republican should resign if allegations against him are true and other senators mulling the possibility of public hearings into his extramarital affair with a former staffer.
“If it is true that indeed he did make these payoffs and all that kind of stuff, then I would think the honorable thing would be to resign,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said in an interview.
Harkin added that he doesn’t “like the smell” of a sex scandal that has “cast a bad image on the Senate.”
Harkin’s public declaration — the first of its kind by a sitting senator — comes as Ensign’s Senate colleagues stand to make life more difficult for him.
The bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee is not ruling out holding public hearings in the case, a move that some believe could help drive Ensign from office. A number of senators signaled to POLITICO they’d be supportive of seeing Ensign sit before a public forum to address the allegations, something that has not been done since the Keating Five scandal in 1991.
Yet such a decision is not imminent, and it’s unclear how party leaders on both sides of the aisle would rule on the matter. Senate Ethics Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) won’t say directly whether she wants public hearings into the Ensign affair.
Boxer, though, pushed hard for public hearings into the Bob Packwood sex scandal in 1995, and she suggested in an interview with POLITICO that she’s open to the same possibility in the Ensign case.
“All you have to do is read the rules of the committee, which I did then and I do now,” Boxer said. “And I follow the rules of the committee — I did then and I do now.”
Other Democratic senators are supportive of such a step. West Virginia Sen. John Rockefeller, who backed public hearings on Packwood, said he “would have to be consistent” with Ensign. “Situations change, but people don’t,” he said.
A third Democratic senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he’d back public hearings on Ensign as well, “but I would hope he would do the right thing before then, which is to [resign].”
Ensign has admitted having a nine-month affair in 2007-2008 with Cynthia Hampton, a former campaign aide married to a top staffer in his office, Doug Hampton.
Ensign has also revealed that his parents paid the Hamptons $96,000 as they were leaving his office — raising questions on whether it was a severance package that had to be reported under federal law. The Hamptons sought millions of dollars in additional payments from Ensign, but he declined to make them.
Some ethics groups have said that if the Hamptons were let go because of the extramarital affair, Ensign may have violated sexual harassment rules — and federal investigators are examining whether Ensign conspired to break federal ethics laws by assisting with the lobbying career of Doug Hampton after he left the senator’s staff.
An Ensign spokeswoman did not respond to several requests seeking comment for this story. Ensign has previously denied that he violated any federal laws or Senate rules, saying he will participate fully with the ongoing investigations.
Ensign lacks the support of the Republican leadership, and he could be on his way out of the Senate if his fate ends up in the hands of his colleagues.
“It’s not just because you might have had an affair with someone; that’s not a reason to resign,” Harkin said. “But it’s the other things — I said if it’s true.”
The Ethics Committee’s rules allow it to hold public hearings during any stage of an investigation, and it is required to give the defendant an opportunity to request a hearing before it recommends disciplinary actions, which can range from a slap on the wrist to expulsion from the Senate. The committee can decide to hold hearings behind closed doors, but a defendant may ask for it to be open in order to publicly air his or her side of the story.
“The rules are clear when you have to go public,” Boxer said when asked about public hearings. “There’s a certain stage where they do go public. Of course, we abide by the rules.”
Some legal experts said it’s unclear whether the Senate Ethics Committee can still hold a public hearing if a defendant waives his or her right to one or whether it would do so even if possible.
“It would be highly unusual for an Ethics Committee investigation to be in public,” said Ken Gross, a Washington-based ethics law expert.
Boxer wouldn’t acknowledge there’s a gray area for such sessions. She said the rules require public hearings “in certain cases.”
“The same thing propels me now, doing what’s in the rules — the spirit and the letter of the law,” Boxer said.
It’s not clear when public hearings might occur if they were to take place.
As much as the Democrats might like to make Ensign an election year issue for Republicans, Boxer has her own reelection race to run. She has seen her poll numbers slide, meaning the three-term senator is going to have to spend more time back home in coming months, rather than in Washington overseeing the Ensign probe.
And the Ethics Committee would have to determine whether its aggressive moves could interfere with a separate Justice Department investigation into Ensign’s affair.
A federal grand jury in Washington recently issued subpoenas to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a half-dozen companies and individuals in Nevada, seeking information regarding allegations that Ensign offered to help Silver State credit card companies derail legislation in return for donations to the GOP committee.
Thus, the Ethics Committee probe could spill into the next Congress, meaning public hearings might happen ahead of the 2012 election, when Ensign’s seat is up. GOP leaders said privately that they don’t want him to run for reelection.
For Boxer, the Ensign case recalls her early days in the Senate — and the furor surrounding sexual harassment allegations against Packwood, who faced charges of sexual misconduct brought by 29 women. Boxer joined with women’s groups like the National Organization for Women in calling for public hearings into the case.
With resistance from then-Ethics Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Packwood matter never came before a public hearing despite a fierce push by Boxer, who narrowly lost a Senate floor vote to force the issue into the open. Packwood eventually resigned from the Senate, after the Ethics Committee recommended his expulsion.
“We have an obligation to demonstrate to our constituents that we take seriously our constitutionally mandated responsibility to police ourselves,” Boxer said on the floor in August 1995. “By attempting to sweep our problems under the committee room’s rug, we do the opposite. The committee should do what it has always done in cases to reach this final phase — it should hold public hearings to investigate the allegations.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who was elected in 2006, said the Ethics Committee shouldn’t arbitrarily decide to conduct public hearings on individual senators but signaled she’d like to see open forums regularly in ongoing ethics cases.
“I think more of it should be public,” McCaskill said. “Our ethics committees have not done an aggressive enough job in going after problems within the body.”
http://www.politico.com/news/stories/05 ... Page3.html