Ethics panel hasn’t met on Ensign recs

The Senate Ethics Committee has not met to discuss the remaining recommendations listed in its report on former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.).

The report, issued a week ago, featured recommendations from a special counsel that the committee offer “clear and direct guidance” to senators and their staff on how to avoid aiding or partaking in illegal lobbying practices on Capitol Hill.

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It also recommends that the panel issue guidelines on when the shredding or deleting of documents or emails could lead to breaking civil and criminal laws and result in charges of obstruction of justice.

The committee did act immediately on the third recommendation — that it refer its findings to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Election Commission (FEC).

The vice chairman of the six-member committee, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), told The Hill that members of the panel had not met yet to discuss drafting the recommended memos to lawmakers and staff.

“Obviously when you have a case that rises to this intensity, we may decide to revisit some things or reinforce some policies,” said Isakson in an interview. “We haven’t made a conscious decision to do that, but that’s generally the natural byproduct of what has happened. We have not met or talked about it.”

Though Isakson could not give a timeline for when the committee might meet, he stressed the importance of making sure staff and members are educated about appropriate conduct in the Senate so a similar situation doesn’t arise again.

“Any time you have an ethics issue it’s important for staff and senators to look at the issues involved and make sure they’re in line and accord with what the committee standards are,” said Isakson.

The report states that Ensign knowingly aided the lobbying practices of former staffer Doug Hampton, which would directly violate the one-year ban for all former congressional staff. Ensign’s lawyers maintain the former senator’s innocence, but Hampton is facing federal charges on his alleged breach of the ban.

Senators and their staffs are given frequent educational seminars by the Ethics Committee on the federal laws governing appropriate lobbying procedure. And the Senate Historical Office provides offices with constant advice on how to store documents for archiving, as well as the best way to back up emails.

“Code of Official Conduct” seminars are available to staffers at least every quarter, and the Senate Ethics Committee staff is available to conduct “in-

office” briefings and provide “telephonic advice” and “private letter rulings” on isolated questions or gray areas.

Public Citizen, a Washington-based watchdog, said it was concerned the Ethics Committee had not met to discuss drafting the points of guidance to staff and members.

“It’s surprising to see the Ethics Committee dragging its feet when the Ensign matter is so close to completion,” said deputy director Lisa Gilbert.

“Issuing such a lengthy public report on the case has given the public at large the sense that the Ethics Committee is taking this seriously, and so we hope that they move forward to bring this matter to a close. The cloud of this scandal has been hanging over the congressional body for too long.”

Stan Brand, an ethics law expert and former general counsel to the House, told The Hill that while a memo about illegal lobbying practices and data retention could be helpful to staff, there are federal laws that govern these areas and the majority of congressional staffers make it their job to be very familiar with them.

Brand also said that the committee’s nearly 20 staff members could be drafting a blueprint of the guidelines for the senators, even though the panel’s lawmakers haven’t held any meeting among themselves yet. 

“The law is the law,” said Brand. “They can dittle and dattle all they want about when they tell people, but the Justice Department is going to be enforcing this law as they already have.

“This case is now very notorious, and everybody in the congressional world is going to be aware of it. Are they dragging their feet or could they do it quicker? Maybe so. But I don’t think it has a big impact, because it’s already out there.”

The committee’s staff is not authorized to speak with the press, and senators on the panel could not verify whether work on the staff level had begun yet.

The timeframe for when any new recommended guidelines will be released is the first of several unanswered questions left in the wake of the Ensign report.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint against Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) last week, asking the Ethics Committee to look into whether he might have broken federal laws or Senate rules in attempting to help Ensign, his friend and former housemate.

Coburn, whose name is peppered throughout the lengthy report, declined to comment about the investigation’s findings or the complaint filed against him.

The 75-page report alleges that Ensign, who resigned two weeks ago, broke federal laws and Senate rules while trying to cover up an affair he had with a former staff member’s wife.

“There is substantial credible evidence that Sen. Ensign permitted spoliation of documents and engaged in potential obstruction of justice violations,” it states.