When John Ensign announced his resignation, it apparently was to avoid having to testify under oath before the Senate Ethics Committee.
Besides advising senators on ethics rules, the Ethics Committee has subpoena powers and can issue letters of admonition and make recommendations, up to expulsion. No one, least of all, Ensign could have been sure where the investigation could have led.
Ensign wouldn’t have been the first Nevadan involved with the Ethics Committee: Richard Bryan, his predecessor in the Senate, served as committee chair the last time a senator resigned over issues related to a sex scandal.
Bryan spoke to Vegas Seven about the case: The resignation of Senator Robert Packwood, an Oregon Republican, in 1995.
“It was an extraordinarily unpleasant experience. It’s fair to say that nobody runs for the United States Senate looking forward to sitting in judgment of their colleagues,” Bryan said. “There was always some kind of implicit pressure: Can you guys work this out short of having it come all the way to some kind of public hearing?”
In 1992, Terry Sanford, the North Carolina Democrat who chaired the committee, lost his bid for re-election. Next in line among the other two Democrats on the committee was Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who “had more presence of mind than I had,” Bryan said, and wanted to avoid the chairmanship. He went to Majority Leader George Mitchell, and said that he was up for re-election in the next cycle, and preferred to get off the committee.
Although Bryan also faced a re-election campaign in 1994, at least one of the Democratic members had to stay.
“That left me as the last survivor,” joined by new members Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Tom Daschle of South Dakota — both Democrats — joining Republicans Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), Larry Craig (Idaho) and Bob Smith (New Hampshire).
Bryan recalled Packwood as “respected and popular, a former chair of the Finance Committee. He was not hard-line. He was very moderate in his politics and in respect to women’s issues.”
But rumors began spreading late in Packwood’s successful re-election campaign of 1992. Then, Bryan said, “these complaints weren’t just rumbles and rumors. They were surfacing in a way that the press was fairly aggressively looking at them.”
So was the Ethics Committee. Packwood tried to rebut charges of sexual misconduct. At one point, Bryan recalled, his lawyers told the committee an accuser was wrong because Packwood couldn’t have been in Oregon, as she claimed; his diary proved otherwise. That led to the committee requesting the diaries.
“I hadn’t known anything about the diary, but the diary then becomes the smoking gun because Packwood, for reasons that are bizarre, dictated it to his secretary each day.” Bryan couldn’t believe it.
To determine how much of Packwood’s diary could be given to the ethics committee, a federal court appointed a special master: Kenneth Starr. Yes, that Kenneth Starr.
“I can say absolutely nothing negative about him. We didn’t want everything, but there was resistance to turning this over to us. It became a protracted issue. Starr gave us everything we asked for. He played it right down the middle fair and square,” Bryan said.
His memories of Starr are pleasant, but not of the rest of his duties. “We had all kinds of meetings, constantly. If I’d had high blood pressure, it would have gone off the chart. Everything is confidential. You were unilaterally disarmed. You have this unpleasant task, and no good deed goes unpunished. There’s a constant barrage of criticism, and you can’t say anything.”
Other senators didn’t always make his life easier. “McConnell dragged his feet on subpoenas. John McCain was just brutal that this was just a rogue elephant committee. Larry Craig deserted us on the floor. The Democratic caucus was upset because Packwood was well-liked, not a polarizing figure,” Bryan recalled. “I got myself into a situation because we’re getting criticized and I just exploded and said, look, this is very serious stuff and may even involve some criminal misconduct because he subsequently altered the diary, in effect tampering with the evidence.”
Then Packwood made the mistake of saying he had no problem with a public debate on this issue.
“This completely undercut his side,” Bryan said. “McConnell did a 180 in short order. He and I went to Packwood and said, ‘You have to resign,’ and he did. There was no big argument.”
Bryan appreciated McConnell, who did the right thing, and Smith, who was “very, very conservative, and I don’t think our voting record would have matched more than 15 or 20 percent of the time, but he was very honorable and stayed with us where Craig deserted us” — and, you may recall, Craig went on to be a noisy supporter of Bill Clinton’s impeachment and ended up leaving the Senate under a cloud due to his own sex scandal.
Bryan also respects the Senate.
“It’s fair to say the process worked. I think the committee gained some credibility. Judging your own members is not a pleasant task. Nobody wants to be the enforcer, the guy who’s telling other members of the Senate what they can and can’t do.”
Bryan, though, did this for three years. Today, the Ethics Committee is still doing it, prompting Ensign to avoid facing it.
Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.