Sept. 22, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER
Roll Call

Coburn Claims Constitutional Shield on Advice to Ensign

Updated: 2:12 p.m.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on Thursday said he would not testify in court or before the Ethics Committee about any advice he gave Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) on how to handle his affair with a former staffer, citing constitutional protections for communications during religious counseling, as well as the patient confidentiality privilege.

“I was counseling him as a physician and as an ordained deacon. ... That is privileged communication that I will never reveal to anybody. Not to the Ethics Committee, not to a court of law, not to anybody,” Coburn said.

Coburn repeatedly denied allegations that he urged Ensign to pay Doug Hampton, the husband of his mistress Cynthia, millions in hush money following a confrontation with Hampton. “I categorically deny everything he said,” Coburn said.

Coburn said he has acted as a counselor to other lawmakers in the past. “Ya’ll don’t know about all the people I’ve counseled,” he said when asked why Ensign had approached him for help.

Ensign has also denied that specific allegation. “In response to today’s television interview, Sen. Ensign said Doug Hampton was consistently inaccurate in his statements,” Ensign spokesman Tory Mazzola said late Wednesday.

In a televised interview with the Las Vegas Sun that aired Wednesday, Doug Hampton alleged that Coburn had proposed paying off the Hamptons’ mortgage in a meeting at the C Street “prayer house,” a home where a number of Christian Senators and House Members live on Capitol Hill.

But even if such an allegation proved true, it would not necessarily trigger any ethical violations in the Senate or federal laws.

Criminal attorney Stan Brand, a former House counsel who is not affiliated with Ensign or Hampton, said that often in employment disputes, “all types of things get offered up. I don’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary about settling those claims with money.”

“That happens every day in private industry, in the government. It happens all over,” he added.

Ken Gross, an ethics attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, added that if the alleged conversation occurred, mere discussion of such a payment does not trigger legal consequences. “The proposed conduct in the conversation does not raise any legal issues,” he said.

In the event such payments are made between an employer and employee, the Internal Revenue Service may have an interest in the source of funds used to pay a settlement and how those funds are accounted, Brand noted.

Although Senate ethics rules limit the gifts Senators or their aides may accept, the chamber’s ethics manuel notes that cash gifts are strictly prohibited: “A gift of cash or a cash equivalent (for example stocks or bonds) is not an acceptable gift, unless it is from a relative or is part of an inheritance.”

Nonetheless, such rules are intended to limit outside influences on the Senate, not to govern employment actions.

Still, Ensign could face legal questions about a $25,000 severance payment made to Cynthia Hampton after her departure from his campaign and political action committees — which could be considered an unreported in-kind donation.

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