Yesterday, the Senate Ethics Committee released the fruits of its long-anticipated investigation into senator John Ensign (R., Nev.), who resigned last month in order to avoid being deposed by the committee’s counsel.
The report makes clear that Ensign’s resignation served another purpose: had he stayed on, he would have been the first senator since Indiana’s Jesse D. Bright in 1862 to face expulsion for ethics infractions. The committee has composed a compelling, well-written, and meticulously documented indictment of the abuse of power by a man who was once frequently mentioned as a presidential prospect. Its account is also striking for its bipartisanship, something Congress has managed only very rarely in ethics matters the past few decades.
Extensive summaries and commentary on the investigation’s results have been furnished by several web writers, most notably at Talking Points Memo. I won’t attempt to add my own summary, but I do want to juxtapose the report’s conclusions with the “investigations” undertaken by the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission, both of which closed their files without taking action against Ensign, at a time when even newspaper accounts pointed to the likelihood of criminal conduct.
Alarmingly, the Justice Department not only failed to act against Ensign, it actually indicted Doug Hampton, Ensign’s former senior staffer, who was clearly a victim of Ensign’s predatory conduct and who had blown the whistle on him. The new report does suggest that Hampton may have engaged in improper lobbying activities, with Ensign’s connivance. But it also makes clear that Hampton’s statements about what happened were truthful and complete, whereas Ensign’s were often cleverly misleading, and sometimes rank falsehoods. In this context, the Justice Department’s decision—to prosecute the victim who spoke with candor and against his own interests, and let the malefactor who lied about his conduct go free—is perverse. It is also completely in line with recent Justice Department pubic integrity prosecutions, which have displayed an unseemly appetite for political intrigue and an irrepressible desire to accommodate the powerful.
With the senate committee’s referral, the Justice Department will be required to take a second look at the matter. It should start that process by asking itself how it got things so embarrassingly wrong the first time, and should resist the temptation to defend its past mistakes.