Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
If Sen. John Ensign began last week with a declaration of his 2012 candidacy that earned him more raised eyebrows than ravenous applause, he got a moment at the end to shake his fist at his naysayers.
On Friday, the Federal Election Commission dismissed a complaint brought by watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington over the $96,000 Ensign’s parents allegedly paid to the senator’s former mistress and her family for their silence.
The group said the payment given to and equally divided among Cynthia Hampton; her husband Doug Hampton, a former aide to Ensign; and their two sons was an illegal political donation to Ensign. But the FEC interpreted the payments as a gift made to longtime family friends.
“The decision made by the Federal Election Commission to close this matter in its entirety gets us one step closer to the truth, which is one step closer to clearing ... Ensign’s name and restoring his reputation,” Chris Gober, one of Ensign’s lawyers, said in a statement released Friday. “We feel confident that the Senate Ethics Committee and Justice Department will follow the FEC’s lead and put this matter to rest, and it is our hope that they will do so expeditiously.”
Of course, all the other shoes that might fall in Ensign’s current predicament are a lot bigger than the one that didn’t fall last week.
The dismissed FEC complaint exists separately from the investigations into possible criminal behavior being conducted by the Justice Department and the Senate Ethics Committee, which could result in indictment.
It’s rare for the Senate Ethics Committee to pursue an investigation in parallel with the Justice Department; the committee usually waits for Justice to complete its work before taking further steps. Such was the case with the 2008 investigation of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who was indicted and found guilty of failing to report before the ruling was overturned on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.
That legacy is reason enough for investigators to be careful with potential charges that could be more serious.
Depending on what investigators find, Ensign could be charged with anything from conspiring to break lobbying laws to “honest services” fraud — if prosecutors believe Ensign’s family paid off the Hamptons to keep quiet. But so far, there’s been no word on if or when such charges might come down.
In the meantime, Congress has been keeping itself rather busy cleaning house in other crises of conduct.
While the GOP reveled in the arrival of its new bumper crop of House freshmen-to-be last week, Democrats were leading a vote to censure one of their own, New York City’s longtime Rep. Charlie Rangel, for improper reporting of his finances and use of his clout as a congressman for fundraising purposes.
But one other Democrat scheduled for a reprimand appears to have received at least a temporary reprieve: The House Ethics Committee postponed indefinitely its scheduled hearing for Rep. Maxine Waters of California, charged with using her position to help a bank in which her husband invested.
As senators wait for news about pending ethics reviews, it’s not just Ensign’s future that’s hanging in the balance.
Since the news of Ensign’s affair broke, his seat has practically begged for a challenger — and several names have been tossed about, both for the primary and the general election. Two of the most prominent names belong to members of the Nevada delegation: Shelley Berkley, Nevada’s senior representative in the House, and Dean Heller, a member of next Congress’ majority.
If Ensign doesn’t get charged with wrongdoing for the financial transactions that accompanied his affair, he wouldn’t be the first unfaithful husband to retain his seat. Just look at David Vitter of Louisiana — he was implicated in a call-girl ring and still managed to beat his Democratic opponent by almost 20 points this month.
Still, Ensign lacks two things that would be necessary to wage a convincing fight. One is a war chest. The other is a party to back him up.
Nevada’s GOP is in acute rebuilding mode after an ugly primary and 2010 midterm season in which several Republican leaders split from their base to back Democrat Sen. Harry Reid.
Influential GOP members say Ensign has never taken the time to build up the base, or fortify the favor-based friendships every politician needs to call in when he’s accused of sleeping with his staffer’s wife and covering it up with campaign funds.
And as the recent election has shown, tough fights come with a price. Reid spent about $25 million and Sharron Angle spent more than $30 million during the 2010 Senate campaign.
Ensign’s third-quarter campaign finance report indicates he has about $280,000 in the bank.