Journos Whine, Sanford Cries, and Ensign Sighs (with Relief)

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 2:23 PM EDT

Boy, did I pick wrong. The Gibbs presser was damn tame compared to the Sanford meltdown. The hottest issue—or non-issue—at the White House was HuffPo's Nico Pitney's question at Tuesday's presidential press conference. This topic did lead to a somewhat interesting display. The front-row journos—who usually get called on during presidential news conference—complained that the Pitney set-up created the impression that reporters (like themselves) are in cahoots with the White House. Robert Gibbs pushed back by noting that he believed that CBS and other Big Media are certainly in the position to disabuse viewers of that notion. He then called on practically every reporter in the first two rows and asked each one if he or she had ever told the White House what he or she intended to ask at a press conference. Each one dutifully said no. Still, they were upset by the HuffPo episode.

At the same time, reporters in the lesser rows—those who don't tend to be called on by the president and who are not always afforded questioning opportunities during Gibbs' briefings—tried to exploit Nico-gate to raise another issue: how does the White House decide who makes it on to the prepared list of journalists President Obama will call on at a news conference. Gibbs ducked that query. For my money, that's the more important matter—but, not surprisingly, not for the guys and gals in the front rows. (You can read my Twitter feed for the details.)

Back to Mark Sanford. After his sad, wife-less press conference, during which he admitted an extramarital affair and stated he would resign as chair of the Republican Governors Association (not from his governor's post), Senator John Ensign, no doubt, said, "Thank you, Governor."

And that's no joke. Two hours before Sanford cried on TV, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a public interest group that chases after government wrongdoing, sent out a notice that it has filed complaints against Ensign with the Senate ethics committee and the Federal Elections Committee.

The group explains that Ensign's actions during his own extramarital escapade might have violated Senate ethics rules and campaign law:

First, Mr. Hampton has alleged Sen. Ensign terminated him and his wife for reasons related to the affair. If true, the senator likely engaged in discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII, and Senate Rule 42, which incorporates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Senate employees and prohibits discrimination based on sex. At least two members of Congress previously have been investigated for sexual harassment, including former Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR) and former Rep. Jim Bates (D-CA).

Second, Ms. Hampton apparently received a severance payment directly from Sen. Ensign when she was terminated from the campaign committee and PAC, but neither committee reported any in-kind contribution by the senator. In addition, if Sen. Ensign paid Ms. Hampton more than $5,000 he may have made an illegal excessive contribution to the PAC. Knowingly failing to report a contribution of over $25,000 is a violation of criminal law.

Mr. Hampton apparently was paid $6,000 upon his departure, purportedly for vacation time. If this actually was some sort of severance payment, Sen. Ensign’s office may have misused official funds.

CREW has alleged Sen. Ensign violated the rules prohibiting improper conduct that reflects upon the Senate by abusing his authority as the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to hire and pay the Hampton’s son as an intern at the NRSC and by claiming to have been blackmailed by Mr. Hampton, without reporting the alleged crime to law enforcement authorities.

Remember what the Republicans used to say. It's not about the sex, it's about the deceit. Does that hold true for Ensign? Will GOPers support an investigation of these allegations?

The Republican Senator from Nevada—like Sanford, once a 2012 presidential propsect—did get a lucky break with the Sanford press conference. But he's now part of an even bigger narrative: what's with these guys who represent the party of family values? And what's next? Newt Gingrich leaving his wife for another woman? Oh yeah, been there, done that. Twice.