Ethics rebukes Coburn over involvement in Ensign scandal

The Senate Ethics Committee admonished Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and a senior staffer for Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) on Friday for their involvement in the scandal that led to former Sen. John Ensign’s (R-Nev.) resignation.

Coburn was entangled in helping his good friend and colleague, Ensign, deal with a sordid scandal he had created within his office.

Coburn and Bret Bernhardt — the chief of staff for DeMint — met with Doug Hampton after he resigned from Ensign’s office and took to lobbying Capitol Hill, which was in clear violation of the one-year ban on lobbying for former staff, the committee reported.

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Coburn was aware that his meeting with Hampton violated federal law, but the committee opted not to take action beyond the public rebuke because Coburn held only one meeting with Hampton and expressed remorse for holding it.

“While the committee did not find that your conduct constituted actionable violations of criminal law, it determined that you did not meet the aforementioned higher standards expected of a U.S. senator,” the committee wrote in a letter to Coburn on Friday. “In deciding to issue a qualified admonition, the committee took note that it was one meeting that you have since candidly acknowledged was wrong and taken full responsibility for arranging.”

Ensign had been having an affair with Hampton’s wife, and upon being discovered, offered to help Hampton out with a job that involved lobbying outside of the office, which violated the lobbying ban.

Ensign resigned shortly before the Senate Ethics Committee released its report on him last year. A special counsel for the secretive Ethics panel found that Ensign was guilty of violating the one-year rule. The committee referred their findings to both the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission.

The committee on Friday stated that Coburn met with Hampton during his first year outside of Ensign’s office. It said Coburn stated in an email that he saw “no harm in meeting with him to discuss personal matters and his efforts to re-establish himself in the business world.”

In that meeting, Coburn talked about several legislative issues concerning Allegiant Air, a company that Hampton was working for, but stopped short of taking any official action on the airline business’s behalf afterwards.

The committee issued its rebuke of Coburn on the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, with the Senate at recess. 

It also released guidelines meant to remove any doubt about the laws governing illegal lobbying for former and current senators and staffers. The committee had said it would release these guidelines more than a year ago.

— Updated at 2:34 p.m.