On May 12, the Senate Ethics Committee asked federal agencies to investigate a former colleague, saying they had found “substantial and credible evidence” that Nevada Republican John Ensign broke federal laws while trying to cover up an extramarital affair with a former campaign aide. The 75-page report from the committee came just two weeks after Ensign hurriedly resigned his Senate seat in the midst of the ethics probe.
Ensign now joins a growing list of National Rifle Association (NRA) champions on Capitol Hill who have been tarnished and/or ruined by extramarital sex scandals. For an organization that trumpets its “celebration of American values,” it smacks of cynicism and hypocrisy. The following is a rogues’ gallery of these NRA stalwarts:
- Former Senator John Ensign (R-NV): When the NRA decided to torpedo a District of Columbia voting rights bills in February 2009, it was Senator John Ensign to whom they turned. Ensign introduced an amendment to the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” that would have gutted the District’s gun laws and prevented the D.C. Council from legislating on firearms in the future. As one D.C. resident put it at the time: “If this amendment becomes law, it would make me frightened to work and live in a city that has been my home for thirteen years.” Unfortunately, the Ensign Amendment was the perfect “poison pill” amendment, and it denied D.C. residents their best change to obtaining voting representation in the U.S. Congress for decades.
In a press release, NRA-Institute of Legislative Action (ILA) Executive Director Chris Cox praised Ensign’s leadership saying, “The NRA would like to thank the lead sponsor, Sen. John Ensign for his efforts to reform D.C.’s gun laws.”
The Senate Ethics Committee began a two-year investigation into allegations against Ensign after receiving a complaint on June 24, 2009 from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). The focus of the investigation was an affair between Ensign and Cindy Hampton, a former campaign aide and the wife of Doug Hampton, the Senator’s administrative assistant and close friend. The committee uncovered a $96,000 "gift" that Ensign's parents gave to the Hamptons after Doug Hampton learned of the affair and the couple stopped working for Ensign. They also learned that Ensign steered Doug Hampton into a lobbying job (despite a federal law that bans staffers from lobbying the Senate within a year of leaving positions in the chamber) and actively assisted him by calling federal agencies and officials to promote the interests of Hampton's clients.
The committee concluded that Ensign made false statements to the Federal Election Commission and obstructed their investigation into his conduct. The investigation has been turned over to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. This is the first time since 1995 that the committee has had to refer a case about a current or former Senator to federal investigators.
- Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK): Senator Tom Coburn’s colleagues have given him a nickname that describes his propensity to place holds on bills which he doesn’t care for: “Dr. No.” And Coburn has made it abundantly clear that he opposes “any and all efforts to mandate gun control on law-abiding citizens.” In 2009, Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) introduced the “Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act” for the purpose of establishing “fair and transparent practices relating to the extension of credit under an open end consumer credit plan.” Coburn saw his opportunity and attached a totally unrelated amendment that now allows individuals to carry loaded firearms in National Parks (up until that point National Parks had astronomically low violent crime and homicide rates). “This common-sense measure, offered by Senator Tom Coburn,” said the NRA, “gives law-abiding gun owners the option of protecting themselves in our federal parks and refuges.”
Curiously, the recent ethics probe involving former Senator John Ensign has revealed that Senator Coburn played an integral role in covering up Ensign’s extramarital affair. According to the report of the Senate Ethics Committee, after confronting Ensign about the affair, Coburn became the intermediary between Ensign and his lover’s husband, Doug Hampton. Coburn allegedly negotiated the payment made by Ensign’s family to Hampton down from $8 million to $2.8 million. When the affair was finally over, Coburn participated in discussions regarding how to relocate the Hamptons to Colorado and provide them with money for their transition.
In speaking about congressional ethics, Coburn has stated, “I believe disclosure and transparency is the best disinfectant against corruption because I trust the wisdom of the electorate far more than I trust politicians.” Apparently, he didn’t get his own memo.
- Former Senator Larry Craig (R-ID): Former Senator Larry Craig has served as a member of the NRA’s Board of Directors since 1983. He was the floor leader in the Senate who shepherded the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act” to passage in 2005. This legislation gave the gun industry unprecedented immunity from civil lawsuits based on claims of negligence and has denied countless victims and survivors of gun violence their day in court.
In May 2006, NRA-ILA awarded Craig the Harlon B. Carter Legislative Achievement Award, “the Institute’s highest honor.” As he presented Craig with the award, NRA-ILA President Chris Cox stated, "We'd be here until the early morning hours if I told you everything that this freedom fighter has done for all of us over the years."
On June 11, 2007, Craig was arrested in a men's restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for lewd conduct when he solicited an undercover police officer for sexual activity. Craig initially claimed he was innocent, but then pled guilty. For his behavior, Craig was harshly criticized by none other than Senator John Ensign, who called him, "embarrassing not only to himself and his family but to the United States Senate." Craig served out his remaining Senate term, but did not seek another term in November 2008.
Perhaps most disturbing about Craig is his hypocrisy. He was an aggressive opponent of gay rights during his years in the Senate. He voted “yes” to implement the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy for the U.S. military, which led to the dismissal of thousands of gay service members. Even after his guilty plea, he told one constituent, “It is unacceptable to risk the lives of American soldiers and sailors merely to accommodate the sexual lifestyles of certain individuals.”
- Senator David Vitter (R-LA): Senator David Vitter has a long history of doing the NRA’s business. In July 2006 Vitter attached an amendment to the FY 2007 Department Of Homeland Security Appropriations Act to prohibit the confiscation of privately held firearms during a national emergency or natural disaster. The impetus behind the amendment was a conspiracy theory developed by the NRA about the mass confiscation of firearms in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. In truth, private investigators hired by the NRA could only locate 75 gun owners who would claim their guns had been taken without good cause. The reality of Katrina was that citizens who remained in the city following the flood were quite well armed, and in some cases preyed on those moving through their neighborhoods to evacuation staging areas.
In February 2008, Vitter (along with Senator Larry Craig) blocked the confirmation of Michael J. Sullivan as head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), claiming (with no apparent evidence) that Sullivan had been "overly aggressive" in enforcing gun laws during his term as the Acting Director of ATF.
By then, however, Vitter’s own reputation had been tarnished. In July 2007, his phone number was included in a published list of phone records of Pamela Martin & Associates. The company was owned by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the "D.C. Madam" who was later convicted of running a prostitution ring. Vitter and his lawyers then sought permission from the Federal Election Commission to use campaign funds to pay for significant legal and public relations expenses. He later apologized to his wife, family and the state of Louisiana.
Ironically, Vitter was initially elected to Congress after Rep. Bob Livingston resigned following an adultery scandal. At that time, Vitter exclaimed, "It's obviously a tremendous loss for the state. I think Livingston's stepping down makes a very powerful argument that Clinton should resign as well and move beyond this mess”—a reference to the Monica Lewinski scandal. Vitter has yet to move beyond his own mess and remains in office to this day.
- Former Representative Mark Souder (R-IN): The NRA was proud to announce that Rep. Mark Souder was the sponsor of the House version of the “Second Amendment Enforcement Act” in April 2010. The bill sought to legalize assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, repeal the District's licensing and registration system, allow some convicted substance abusers and violent misdemeanants to purchase and own firearms, roll back important regulations curbing illegal gun trafficking, and prevent the D.C. Council from enacting gun-related legislation in the future.
Just one month later, Souder announced he would resign from Congress after his affair with a female staffer, Tracy Meadows Jackson, came to public light. "I wish I could have been a better example," Souder stated. "In this poisonous environment of Washington, D.C., any personal failing is seized upon, often twisted, for political gain.” The situation must have been terribly embarrassing for Souder: He was elected as a family values Conservative in 1994.
Who will be the next NRA champion on Capitol Hill to “celebrate American values”? Only time will tell...