- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 3, 2009

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell passed on several opportunities to defend two embattled GOP senators Friday as a new report raised questions about Sen. John Ensign’s efforts to cover up his affair with a campaign aide.

Mr. McConnell refused to answer several questions about the report, which provided new details of the aftermath of the nine-month affair that Mr. Ensign had with campaign aide Cynthia Hampton, the wife of the senator’s chief of staff at the time. Mr. Ensign eventually dismissed them both.

The Republican leader also refused to comment on new details that Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, tried to broker a payment of restitution from Mr. Ensign to the Hamptons.

Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, had been asked about a report in the New York Times that said Mr. Ensign tried to get Doug Hampton, his lover’s husband, a lobbying job to try to contain the damage. The Hamptons later went through Mr. Coburn to seek an $8.5 million settlement from the Nevada Republican before the affair became public, the paper said.

Other Senate Republicans took Mr. McConnell’s lead: None immediately came to the defense of the embattled colleagues.

It was not immediately clear what Mr. Ensign’s political future held. The Senate ethics committee automatically opened a preliminary investigation into his conduct after receiving a complaint from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in June. The panel, which conducts business in strict confidentiality, can launch investigations on lawmakers on its own without receiving a complaint from an outside party.

The Times report raised questions about whether Mr. Hampton lobbied Mr. Ensign and whether the senator facilitated the arrangement. Federal criminal law imposes a one-year ban on former congressional aides lobbying their ex-bosses or office colleagues.

After leaving his job working for Mr. Ensign, Mr. Hampton, in coordination with the senator and his staff, played a significant role in pushing the Washington agendas of NV Energy, the largest power company in Nevada, and Allegiant Air, a Las Vegas-based discount airline, the newspaper reported.

The Times said that after Mr. Hampton discovered the affair, Mr. Ensign played a role in helping Mr. Hampton get work representing NV Energy and Allegiant Air. Mr. Ensign has a long record of assisting NV Energy and Allegiant.

According to the newspaper, Mr. Hampton spent the summer of 2008 strategizing on NV Energy with the senator’s chief of staff, John Lopez, about how Mr. Ensign could intervene with the Interior Department to get an environmental assessment completed on a proposed NV Energy coal plant.

Following requests from Mr. Hampton, the newspaper said, Mr. Ensign called the secretary of transportation last year on behalf of Allegiant Air. Mr. Ensign also arranged for Mr. Hampton and his clients to meet the new transportation secretary in a successful effort to resolve a dispute with a competitor, the Times said.

Early last year, Mr. Coburn warned Mr. Ensign that if the affair did not end, Mr. Coburn would “go to Mitch,” referring to Mr. McConnell, and tell him about the relationship.

Mr. Coburn also acted as an intermediary in negotiations last spring with the lawyer for the Hamptons before Mr. Ensign publicly admitted the relationship with Mrs. Hampton, the Times said.

According to the newspaper, Mr. Coburn rejected as “ridiculous” the $8.5 million figure suggested by the Hamptons’ attorney, Daniel J. Albregts. The amount was to cover the purchase of the couple’s home in Nevada, lost wages and pain and suffering.

The Times said that the Hamptons’ lawyer came back with a $2 million figure, which Mr. Coburn passed on to the senator, who flatly rejected it. Mr. Ensign’s parents eventually paid the Hamptons about $96,000.

On Thursday, Mr. Ensign’s office responded to the Times story with an e-mail noting that it had previously been publicized that the senator helped Mr. Hampton get two jobs. Mr. Ensign’s office did not reply to further questions.

Mr. Coburn’s spokesman did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

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