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Ethics in Government Part II:

Ethics in Government Part I: The Resignation of Senator John Ensign

Sexual Improprieties by Members of Congress

This is the first of a two-part blog on ethics in government. Today I deal with sexual improprieties. Tomorrow I tackle bribery and fraud in government.

Senator John Ensign's (R-NV) sudden resignation from the US Senate on April 21 to take effect on May 3, one day before the Senate returns from recess, illustrates all that is wrong with government today. There are no boundaries between right and wrong. There is no inner sense of what I am about to do may be wrong -- for my state, for my family, for the public good. Politicians and government officials seem incapable of considering the consequences of their actions until after they get caught. It's as if they truly believe they won't get caught, don't care, or can't see past their own self-interests. It's hubris of the worst kind.

Senator Ensign's actions are particularly egregious because not only was his affair with his former political treasurer Cynthia Hampton wrong on many levels, he dismissed her and her husband, Doug Hampton, who served in Ensign's legislative office until the firings in 2008. Ensign’s parents then gave $96,000 to the Hamptons in "gift money," and the senator also helped Doug Hampton land lobbying work with his political supporters back in Las Vegas.

The Senate Ethics Committee plans to complete its work even though Ensign has resigned and will be leaving the Senate just one day after its return from recess on May 2. According to the joint statement issued by the chair of the panel, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and ranking member Johnny Isakson (R-GA),  "The Senate Ethics Committee has worked diligently for 22 months on this matter and will complete its work in a timely fashion.” The continuing investigation of Ensign appears to be a bi-partisan affair (pardon the pun), and that's a good thing. Ethics investigations must be done based on a set of standards of honorable behavior including truthfulness, integrity, responsibility and accountability.

It's important for the Senate Ethics Committee to continue its work to send the signal to would be philanderers and those who suddenly grow a "conscience" that offensive actions committed in violation of the Ethics rules will be investigated even after one's departure from the Senate. Moreover, the Committee might chose to send the evidence and testimony gathered in the case to the Justice Department, which has been conducting a parallel criminal inquiry.

In his resignation statement, Senator Ensign went down a similar road as other members of Congress before him by citing the continued pain and agony for his family as the motivation for stepping down; not apologizing to the other parties harmed by his actions; and failing to uphold the public trust. Ensign said "I will not continue to subject my family, my constituents, or the Senate to any further rounds of investigation, depositions, drawn out proceedings, or especially public hearings.  For my family and me, this continued personal cost is simply too great."

The pattern of sexually-induced inappropriate behavior by members of Congress seems to have no bounds. Image1 On February 9 of this year,  Representative Chris Lee (R-NY) resigned from Congress after Gawker, the Manhattan weblog magazine, published flirtatious emails and a photo of him posing shirtless that he had apparently sent to a women he met on Craigslist. Then there is the September 2006 scandal of Representative Mark Foley (R-FL) that centered on soliciting e-mails and sexually suggestive instant messages sent by Foley to teenaged boys who had formerly served as congressional pages. And, who can forget Senator Larry Craig's (R-ID) "tap dance" in the bathroom stall at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport back in June 2007 and subsequent arrest for lewd conduct.  Craig pled down to the lesser charge of disorderly conduct, resigned, and later decided to finish out his term.

The Ethics Reform Act of 1989 enacted, for the first time, statutory post-employment restrictions on certain legislative branch officials, codified in section 207 of the Federal Criminal Code. These limitations went into effect for Members and staff in January 1991. The law applies only to Members, officers, and those employees at the higher ranks which would include Hampton. Senate Rule 37(8) and (9) limit the activities of those who leave the Senate and become registered lobbyists (under the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946 or any successor statute such as the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995.)  Senators who become registered lobbyists, or who are employed or retained by such persons for the purpose of influencing legislation, may not lobby Members, officers, or employees of the Senate for a period of one year after leaving office. Employees who become registered lobbyists, or who are employed or retained by such persons for the purpose of influencing legislation, may not lobby their former offices for one year after leaving the Senate. That is, an employee on the personal staff of a Senator may not lobby that Senator or his or her personal staff for one year and an employee on a committee staff may not lobby the members or staff of that committee or subcommittee for one year. It's basically a one-year cooling off period.

Returning to the Ensign matter, former aide Doug Hampton pled not guilty on April 4 to charges that he violated Congressional revolving-door laws by lobbying the Nevada Republican shortly after leaving his job on the Hill. If found guilty of violating federal conflict of interest laws related to his job as a lobbyist, he could face up to five years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

What are the ethical lessons to be learned by the behavior of Ensign, Lee, Foley, Craig and all those who came before them? First, don't do it. Hold yourself to a higher ethical standard. The public trust demands it. Second, immediately admit wrongdoing when confronted with the facts; be contrite; accept responsibility for your actions; and promise not to do it again. Don't go down the proverbial ethical slippery slope and try to cover it up. Third, touch base with your constituency to determine the proper course of action. If you are unsure, do the honorable thing and step down.

Is it any wonder that a recent Gallup Poll taken in November 2010 found that only 9 percent of Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in Congress as very high or high. Only used car salespeople and lobbyists ranked lower at 7 percent.

  Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, April 25, 2011