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Lobbyists Put Ensign At Distance

Correction Appended

Lobbyists are bracing themselves for the impending political fallout surrounding Sen. John Ensign, following allegations that the once-powerful Nevada Republican may have violated ethics rules in helping a former aide-turned-lobbyist secure business.

Ensign, who confessed to having an affair with the former staffer’s wife, allegedly not only helped Doug Hampton violate ethics rules, but also coordinated his move to a consulting firm and helped him secure clients, the New York Times reported late last week.

Republicans on K Street quickly tried to tamp down any speculation that the recent accusations will lead Ensign to resign.

Eric Ueland, a Republican lobbyist at the Duberstein Group, said the allegations are too new and need to be fully digested before Ensign’s fate will be decided.

“I don’t think anybody has thought that through,— Ueland said.

Others close to Ensign say they don’t expect an imminent resignation.

“He’s said that he’s going to put his head down and get back to work,— said one source familiar with the Ensign operation. “That’s what he’s said from the get-go.—

Still, Ensign’s near-pariah status on Capitol Hill has limited his usefulness to lobbyists, despite his positions on the powerful Finance Committee and Commerce, Science and Transportation panel.

As Senate Republicans have largely benched Ensign, K Streeters have taken that as a cue to distance themselves from him, according to one veteran Republican lobbyist.

“Arm’s length is kind of typical in how people on K Street act when someone has a cloud over them,— the lobbyist said.

While health care stakeholders worked Republican Senators to try to beat back more liberal proposals during the Finance Committee health care markup last week, lobbyists say Ensign was largely left alone because he’s been so marginalized by his fellow Republicans.

The gaming industry may be the biggest loser among Nevada interests in Ensign’s demoted status.

As a senior member of the Finance and Commerce panels, Ensign has long supported the industry, pushing back any attempts to restrict gambling, but he’s no longer in a position to take the lead on any legislative initiatives or defensive posturing, according to several lobbyists.

That has left Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has long worked in concert with Ensign on home-state issues, with having to take the lead on all Nevada interests.

“If there’s something that needs to get done for Nevada it’s a double lift for Reid,— said one Democratic consultant with ties to the state.

The ramifications of the scandal could have more wide-ranging effects, too.

Ensign’s long been close to K Street. He got cozy with the influence community, first as a Member of the House and later in his leadership positions, working the fundraising circuit as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the 2008 election cycle.

Seen as part of a new generation of politicians, Ensign’s pro-business and approachable personality helped him grow a wide network of downtown confidants.

He also has a large cabal of former aides who have moved downtown, including legislative assistant Alexis Bayer, now at the National Association of Manufacturers; senior policy adviser Bryan Cunningham, now of Polaris Consulting; and aide Jeremy Hancock, now with Experian.

Windsor Freemyer, a former legislative assistant to Ensign, opened her own consulting firm, W2 Consulting. She continues to lobby on behalf of Boulder City, Nev.

Former staffer Mike Slanker’s political consulting firm, November Inc., is also still in operation. November Inc. is the company where Hampton alleges Ensign helped him to attract clients like Allegiant Air and NV Energy.

Since the beginning of the year, the firm has undergone major changes. The firm broke out its fundraising operation under a new banner, October Inc., in the spring so that the firm’s lobbyists would not need to be listed as bundlers as required by the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.

Former Chief of Staff Scott Bensing also formed his own lobbying operation. Bensing had registered as a lobbyist under November Inc. in March, signing up Night Operations Systems and Expedia as clients. Bensing terminated those lobbying clients and opened a new firm in August, SB Strategic Consulting. He has re-registered Night Operations Systems and Expedia. He also signed up Shift Research.

Ensign has also had a number of aides head to the private sector in recent weeks. Most recently Jason Mulvihill, Ensign’s legislative director, and Brooke Allmon, deputy chief of staff, departed before finding outside employment. Mulvihill left to pursue a career in the private sector and Allmon relocated to Omaha, Neb., to join her fiance, Ensign spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said at the time.

The departures came after Ensign’s longtime chief of staff, John Lopez, departed. Lopez, who is named as the staffer who most directly dealt with Hampton’s inquiries on behalf of clients in the New York Times article, joined Nevada-based lobby shop R&R Partners. Tory Mazzola, Ensign’s communications director, joined the National Republican Congressional Committee in July.

Correction: Oct. 6, 2009

The article stated that Jeremy Hancock worked at Charles Schwab. He now works at Experian.

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