Las Vegas Sun

November 25, 2015

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Letter From Washington:

Senator’s web snared Nevada’s elite pols

The people named in the Senate Ethics Committee’s probe of former Sen. John Ensign’s actions in the wake of his affair read like a who’s who of Nevada’s power elite.

There’s Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who helped get Doug Hampton, Ensign’s former staffer and jilted best friend, a job at Nevada Power (now NV Energy) that prompted the Hampton family move to Las Vegas in 2004.

There’s Sig Rogich, the longtime GOP operative who advised Paul Steelman, a Las Vegas architecture consultant who designed dozens of resorts, against hiring Hampton when Ensign tried to land him a job as he left Ensign’s office following the affair.

There’s Mike and Lindsey Slanker, the Republican consulting pair who have run campaigns for Gov. Brian Sandoval and are consultants for Sen. Dean Heller.

And there’s John Lopez, Ensign’s former chief of staff who now is vice president of government and public affairs for R&R Partners, the state’s most powerful public relations and lobbying firm.

Some are bystanders and a few are portrayed in the 75-page report as collaborators. Lopez is undoubtedly the star witness of the Ethics Committee’s report, volunteering to be the go-between for Ensign and Hampton after the latter had departed to start lobbying, as a way of keeping the senator and his junior staff clean of any criminal culpability.

Collectively, they’re a snapshot of Nevada’s entrenched, political structure that reaches from Las Vegas to Reno to Washington, D.C. The miniature size of the Nevada political universe is underscored as the report traces Ensign’s efforts to land Hampton a job — a necessity once Hampton learned of Ensign’s affair with his wife, Cynthia, who also worked for Ensign.

“We are a small state. Companies, their executives and public officials inevitably know one another. That’s just the nature of this community and of this state,” National Republican Committee member and former Gov. Bob List said.

In hot water because of his affair, the senator turned to Mike Slanker, the brains behind Ensign’s campaigns, who resuscitated November Inc., a powerful Nevada lobbying firm that was dormant as the Slankers worked on other projects. November Inc. was supposed to serve as a “business card” for Hampton — who with almost no knowledge of Capitol Hill and few connections past Ensign, was the unlikeliest of lobbyists — to get him up and running with a few clients Ensign would handpick.

Slanker is a perfect example of the tightly woven Nevada political web: He has advised almost every prominent Republican who has run for any prestigious office and is providing his expertise to Heller’s Senate campaign.

The coziness among Nevada’s power brokers could explain why the state’s Republican establishment failed to call for Ensign’s resignation two years ago, when Hampton came forward with his story.

Ensign at the time was the top-ranking Nevada Republican, whose father, Mike Ensign, is a casino mogul. Party officials were loath to cross him.

“We’re a one-industry town,” conservative consultant Chuck Muth said. “You don’t mess with a U.S. senator, much less one with ties to gaming.”

The commission’s report outlined a pattern of Ensign using his influence to bully people and try to extract favorable outcomes for himself, a habit with which Republican insiders were familiar.

A telling example: When Ensign discovered that Rogich advised Steelman against hiring Hampton, Ensign forced Lopez, his chief of staff, to call Rogich and “jack him up to high heaven and tell him that he is cut off from the office and never to contact (Ensign) ever again.”

Lopez bristled at the task but feared disobeying his boss. “I remember really feeling like that was abusing the office,” Lopez told the committee.

If Ensign’s tactics slowly started losing him his friends in the party in 2008, they fled en masse once he announced his affair in 2009 and the investigations got under way.

Although many bemoaned his continued presence around the Nevada political establishment, nobody banded together the troops to force him out.

Ensign would leave under his own volition, running out the door just in time to avoid having to testify under oath about his actions. Although Ensign was shunned the last several months, his most influential staffers weren’t. Some were even brought in to advise the new fold.

“It’s all the same team,” UNLV political scientist David Damore said.

Delen Goldberg reported from Las Vegas

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