Ensign May Face Justice Department Probe After Senate Ethics Report

John Ensign may face renewed scrutiny from the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission after a report by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics found “substantial credible evidence” of criminal wrongdoing by the former Nevada Republican senator.

The committee reported its findings a week after Ensign, 53, resigned from the Senate. When he announced that he would give up his Senate seat, he said he wanted to spare his family the emotional “wear and tear” of an ethics inquiry into an extramarital affair.

The ethics panel forwarded its findings to the Justice Department and the FEC. The Justice Department had earlier dropped a probe of Ensign, according to his lawyer, Paul Coggins, and the FEC declined to authorize an investigation, the Ethics Committee report said.

“When Senator Ensign resigned, he said, ‘I have not violated any law, any rule or a standard of conduct,’” Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said on the Senate floor yesterday. “I want to go on record as chairman of the Ethics Committee to say how strongly I disagree with that statement.”

Ensign disclosed in June 2009 that he had had an affair with the treasurer of his campaign committee, Cindy Hampton, whose husband, Doug Hampton, was a top aide on his Senate staff. The previous year, after Doug Hampton learned of the affair and he and his wife left their jobs, Ensign’s parents paid $96,000 to the Hamptons and two of their children. Coggins said in July 2009 that the payment was made “out of concern for the well- being of longtime family friends during a difficult time.”

“I am confident that the Department of Justice will conclude that Senator Ensign fully complied with the law,” Coggins said in a statement yesterday.

Hired as Lobbyist

The ethics panel reported that after Doug Hampton left Ensign’s staff, the senator pushed to have him hired as a lobbyist with access to the senator, even though Hampton was subject to a one-year ban on contacting his former boss. Hampton contacted Ensign’s office and received help for his clients, the report said.

The report also said that part of the $96,000 was “an unlawful and unreported campaign contribution” because Cindy Hampton had been a campaign aide, and that Ensign’s parents misled the FEC in saying the money was a “pattern of giving to the Hamptons.”

The ethics committee also said Ensign deleted documents and files relevant to the case, including a personal e-mail account.

Ensign’s actions “exceeded the normal acts of discretion and created a web of deceit that entangled and compromised numerous people, including a loyal chief of staff, was an abuse of the senator’s power, and raised serious issues of violations within the committee’s jurisdiction,” the report said.

Lawyers’ Response

Ensign’s lawyers, Robert Walker and Abbe Lowell, provided the committee with a 12-page response and said the committee’s decision to issue its findings one day after receiving it meant that it “did not fully consider our submission.”

The lawyers said that while Ensign recommended Hampton to potential employers, the discussions didn’t include efforts to violate any bans on lobbying; that the $96,000 was a gift; and that the senator “did not delete or destroy evidence to conceal it” from investigators.

“Senator Ensign has admitted and apologized for his conduct and imposed on himself the highest sanction of resignation,” the lawyers said in an e-mailed statement. “But this is not the same as agreeing that he did or intended to violate any laws or rules, and this submission demonstrates that there is a lot more to the issues than the committee’s report indicates.”

‘Puzzling’ Decision

The head of the government watchdog group that brought the original complaint against Ensign called on the Justice Department to prosecute the former senator.

“It is puzzling how DOJ, armed with the full might of the legal system, was unwilling or unable to reach the same conclusions as the ethics committee,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement.

The Justice Department received the referral letter and declined to make any additional comment, said Laura Sweeney, a department spokeswoman.

Judith Ingram, an FEC spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Republican U.S. Representative Dean Heller was appointed by Nevada’s governor to succeed Ensign in the Senate. He was sworn in as a senator on May 9, six days after Ensign stepped down.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at jsalant@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.