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Democratic political operatives on Monday sought to exploit Sen. John Ensign’s (R-Nev.) ethics woes as fresh questions surfaced over whether the Justice Department would launch a probe into allegations that he helped the husband of his former mistress secure a lucrative lobbying job.

According to the New York Times, Ensign helped his ex-mistress’ husband, Doug Hampton, land a lobbying job, steered clients his way and then provided those clients with legislative favors. Hampton had been a top aide to Ensign in his personal office, and according to the Times, he may have violated Senate ethics rules and federal law when he took the lobbying job.

On Monday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee tried to use the scandal to attack Sue Lowden, the top GOP challenger to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in next year’s election, over her ties to Ensign. And a coalition of health care reform advocates incorporated the scandal into a television ad attacking Ensign’s position on health care.

Health Care for Americans Now, a coalition of liberal reform organizations, announced a $110,000 ad buy in Reno and Las Vegas to criticize Ensign’s position on health care. Ensign serves on the Finance Committee, which is marking up the Senate’s health care bill, and has been a reliable vote against the reforms liberals are seeking.

However, while the 30-second ad largely focuses on Ensign’s positions on health care, it also explicitly invokes the scandal surrounding his affair with Cindy Hampton. “Lately, there’s been a lot of controversy about John Ensign,— an announcer says at the beginning of the ad before criticizing the Nevada Republican for opposing liberal health care proposals.

DSCC Executive Director Eric Schultz called Lowden’s repeated refusals to distance herself from Ensign “disturbing— in an e-mail to Democratic supporters on Monday.

“The most disturbing aspect of Sue Lowden’s reaffirmation of Ensign is that she did so fully aware of his potentially criminal conduct. Sue Lowden’s support of John Ensign may have fundraising value to her, but it is a reflection of her own character and fitness for office. She has shown more fidelity to him, than he has shown to his own wife.—

Lowden has said she hopes Ensign, who is already the subject of a preliminary Senate Ethics Committee investigation, would help campaign for Republicans running in next year’s election in Nevada.

On Friday, the Elko Daily Free Press reported that Lowden refused to back away from her support of Ensign.

Republicans, however, were quick to fire back, calling Democratic attempts to link Lowden to Ensign a “desperation— move.

“It’s ironic that the same day Vice President [Joseph] Biden is campaigning in Connecticut and standing by the ethically challenged [Sen.] Chris Dodd [D-Conn.], the Democrats would want to make ethics an issue in Senate races,— National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh said. “But when you consider that Reid and Dodd have the lowest approval numbers of any incumbent in either party facing re-election next year, it seems desperation is setting in early. The unfortunate reality for the Democrats is that next year’s election will be a referendum on Harry Reid, not anyone else.—

Nevertheless, Ensign’s support among his Senate colleagues appeared to be waning: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), while not criticizing him, also refused to give Ensign a vote of confidence when asked about the scandal on Friday. Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said on CNN’s “State of the Union— on Sunday that he would “wait and see— what happens with the Ethics Committee’s inquiry.

More questions have surfaced over whether Ensign would be subject to a Justice Department probe in addition to a Senate ethics inquiry.

“There’s plenty of evidence here that federal laws way beyond the Senate ethics rules have been violated,— said Craig Holman, an ethics expert with the government watchdog group Public Citizen. “I would be quite surprised if the Department of Justice doesn’t pick this up.—

Although Ensign’s affair with Cynthia Hampton, a former campaign staffer, could ultimately trigger a full Ethics Committee investigation, Holman and Senate aides said Monday that the payments Ensign acknowledged his family made to the Hamptons and the most recent accusations surrounding Doug Hampton could prompt a Justice investigation.

Hampton told the New York Times he and Ensign understood that his lobbying activities would violate a one-year federal ban on lobbying by former staff.

According to Holman and Senate aides familiar with the rules, the only person culpable for violating the Senate lobbying restriction is the former staffer, not Ensign.

However, federal law also requires top aides to refrain from lobbying their former bosses for one year after leaving the office. Under that statute, they argued, Ensign could face federal charges for aiding and abetting Hampton if he knowingly helped set up his lobbying practice and allowed him to lobby his office as Hampton has alleged.

Hampton’s “statements strongly, strongly suggest Ensign was fully aware,— Holman said. “That does fall within aiding and abetting.—

Ensign has also admitted that his parents made a series of “gifts— totaling nearly $100,000 to the Hampton family after Doug Hampton discovered the affair.

Although Ensign has insisted those payments were gifts, Holman noted that they have the appearance of being “hush money.— That, combined with allegations in the New York Times story that Ensign asked campaign contributors to hire Hampton in return for legislative favors, would almost certainly trigger a federal inquiry, Holman said. “This is potentially a federal crime, and that really is how this case should be handled,— he said.

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