WHAT HAPPENS IF ENSIGN IS INDICTED?…. We haven’t seen a sitting senator indicted in a while. As Jon Ralston reported yesterday, that may soon change.

In the federal penal code, it is known as “structuring.” And it is a word Sen. John Ensign should remember because it is very likely to be on any indictment with his name on it.

That’s what I am told by a reliable source familiar with the deliberations occurring inside the Justice Department as federal authorities in Washington try to do with Ensign what they could not do with former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens: Get their man. […]

Structuring is a broad term that refers to the crime of creating financial transactions to evade reporting requirements — for example, a $96,000 payment to your mistress laundered through a trust controlled by your parents and calling it a “gift” instead of what it obviously was: a severance payment that had to be reported.

Ensign’s controversy, for quite a while, looked like a simple sex scandal — the “family-values” conservative was sleeping with one of his aides who happened to be married to another one of his aides. But as we’ve seen the matter unfold in recent months, there’s now ample reason to believe the Republican senator may also include ethics violations, hush money, and official corruption. An ongoing FBI investigation appears to be heating up, and by some accounts, expanding.

The likelihood of a criminal indictment is no longer far-fetched. And if the indictment comes, Ensign’s scandal at least has the potential to shake up the political landscape a bit.

If Ensign gets indicted, he will become a national and state nightmare for the GOP. National Democrats will brandish him as a symbol of corruption (they may anyhow) and local Democrats will wrap the junior senator around the GOP Senate nominee’s neck, especially because Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian foolishly have said they would welcome his support.

Something to keep an eye on.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.