Coburn gets a free pass

Reading about Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnMr. President, let markets help save Medicare Pension insolvency crisis only grows as Congress sits on its hands Paul Ryan should realize that federal earmarks are the currency of cronyism MORE (R-Okla.) quitting the Gang of Six deficit talks in a hissy-fit over demands for $130 billion in additional Medicare cuts, you would’ve never known that just one week prior, significant discrepancies regarding Coburn’s role in the Ensign scandal were revealed. The Senate Ethics Committee report, released last week, directly contradicts Coburn’s previous public statements, and it appears that at a minimum he misled the committee and the American public in his previous statements, raising numerous questions about the level and extent of his involvement. Instead, for the most part, the mainstream media gave Coburn a free pass to rail on the system, using them as a platform to pontificate about the evils of American debt and a broken system, avoiding any questions about the Ensign report. 

Perhaps it just didn’t seem nearly as important or “newsworthy” as the coming of the Rapture, or perhaps the ethical and legal questions just didn’t fit the media narrative about Coburn and the deficit talks. He is described by many as a tough maverick, a well-respected, conservative legislator righteously attacking the ways of Washington. In his book, Breach of Trust, Coburn wrote, “The worst course of action we could take would be to behave like the career politicians we were sent to replace and resume business as usual.” Now, the last time I checked, a sex scandal involving a member of Congress, a staffer and secret hush-money deals was considered exactly the kind of “business as usual” he referred to.

As The Hill reported, there are numerous unanswered questions now on the table, but will Coburn answer them? Certainly he won’t — not if he’s not even asked. 

At this point, it does not appear that Coburn knowingly broke any laws. However, within the 46 mentions in the 37-page report it’s clear he played a significant role, directly contradicting his strident denials in which he said his role was in an “advisory” capacity as a physician or a deacon. Coburn repeatedly attempted to get then-Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) to stop his affair, then in conversations with Doug Hampton and his lawyer he negotiated the terms of a deal to keep the matter quiet (from $8 million to $2.8 million) and cover it up. Clearly, with the proper motivation, Coburn is an effective negotiator.

In 2009, Coburn told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that there was no negotiation — he merely helped pass information, contradicting statements made by Doug Hampton to Cynthia McFadden to the contrary. According to Hampton, Coburn said, “I would have them buy your home, give you a million bucks so you can start over, and that is what I am willing to help you negotiate.” 

Shockingly, as with a number of other mainstream media interviews last week, when interviewed for ABC’s “Subway Series,” Coburn was not asked a single question either about his role in the scandal or the odd timing of his abrupt decision to leave the Gang just one week after the release of the report.

At a minimum, we know that for a period of time Coburn had direct knowledge that a colleague and friend in the United States Senate was violating moral codes, Senate ethics and federal laws, and he did not report it to the proper authorities. Since 2010 Coburn has voluntarily cooperated with the FBI and turned over emails and documents in the investigation, which is to be commended; but that doesn’t change the fact that remaining questions deserve to be asked and answered.

Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.