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'Credible evidence' against John Ensign in sex and lobbying scandal, Senate panel says

May 12, 2011|By Kathleen Hennessey | Washington Bureau
(J. Scott Applewhite, AP )

Reporting from Washington —

The Senate Ethics Committee says it has found "substantial and credible evidence" that former Nevada Sen. John Ensign may have violated campaign finance and lobbying laws and has referred its findings to the Justice Department.

Committee Chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer said Thursday that the committee voted unanimously to release its preliminary report on a sex and lobbying scandal that dogged the Nevada senator for nearly two years before he resigned earlier this month.

The report alleges that a 20-month investigation of Ensign and his associates found evidence that the senator, in the fallout from an extramarital affair, made false or misleading statements to the Federal Election Commission, conspired to help an aide violate the law, accepted illegal campaign contributions and "engaged in potential obstruction of justice."

Ensign's attorney released a statement saying the former senator believed there was "a lot more" to the matter than the committee report indicated. The former senator was "confused and disappointed" by the committee’s decision to release the report at this time, apparently without considering a statement submitted by Ensign on Wednesday, said Ensign attorney Rob Walker.

"Senator Ensign has admitted and apologized for his conduct and imposed on himself the highest sanction of resignation. 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," the statement said.

The committee, with assistance from an outside special counsel, has been investigating whether Ensign inappropriately funneled nearly $100,000 to his former mistress and her husband, Cynthia and Douglas Hampton. The committee also investigated whether Ensign violated the law by helping Douglas Hampton set up a lobbying business.

A previous Justice Department investigation into the matter did not result in charges. Ensign's lawyers said in February that he was cleared.

Ensign resigned just days before he was scheduled to testify before the committee. In his farewell speech, Ensign apologized to his wife and his staff for the pain the scandal had caused.

Ensign's public trouble began in the spring of 2009 when Douglas Hampton, a former aide in Ensign’s Senate office, threatened to tell the media about the affair.

The senator preempted the expose, admitting in a somber news conference that he'd cheated on his wife with Cynthia Hampton, who was working on the senator’s campaign.  

But in the following months, Ensign owned up to more sordid details of the coverup and his bitter split with onetime family friends. He revealed that his parents had paid the Hamptons $96,000 as they left the senator’s staff.

The Hamptons called the money severance, but Ensign described it as a gift.

Douglas Hampton then accused Ensign of using his position to help Douglas set up a lobbying business, in violation of a law prohibiting former legislative aides from moving immediately to lobbying.

The committee report bolsters that claim, finding that Ensign told a staff member to ensure that a prominent donor hire Hampton or face consequences.

"For example, when a prominent Nevada constituent declined to hire Mr. Hampton, Senator Ensign instructed John Lopez, his chief of staff, to 'jack him up to high heaven' and inform the constituent that he was 'cut off' from Senator Ensign and could not contact him any longer," the report said.

The report also disputes Ensign's description of the payment. Ensign himself described the payment as severance in public comments and a private journal. He later altered a public statement to remove the term, after receiving advice that it could open him up to legal trouble, according to the report. A severance payment of that amount would likely violate campaign finance law.

The report also accuses Ensign of deleting documents and files that were likely to be requested by the committee. The senator deleted the contents of a personal email account after the investigation was launched, it said.

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