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Senate ethics panel accuses ex-Sen. John Ensign of breaking the law

Investigators refer their findings in the sex and lobbying scandal to the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission.

May 13, 2011|By Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • Former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) in 2009.
Former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) in 2009. (Isaac Brekken / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — Senate investigators found evidence that former Nevada Sen. John Ensign may have violated the law during a sex and lobbying scandal that led to his downfall, according to a Senate Ethics Committee report released Thursday.

In a document that details betrayal from the Las Vegas suburbs to the power corridors of Washington, the ethics panel accused the former senator of making false or misleading statements to election regulators, conspiring to help an aide violate the law, accepting illegal campaign contributions and engaging in potential obstruction of justice.

The committee said it found "substantial and credible evidence" of those violations and referred its findings to the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission. Because Ensign, a Republican, is no longer in the Senate, the committee cannot impose punishment.

Rob Walker, a lawyer for Ensign, said: "Sen. 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."

Walker added that "there is a lot more to the issues than the committee's report indicates."

For nearly two years, the committee has been investigating allegations that Ensign inappropriately funneled nearly $100,000 to his former mistress, Cynthia Hampton, and her husband, Douglas, both former Ensign aides. The committee also looked into allegations that Ensign violated federal law by helping Douglas Hampton become a lobbyist shortly after he left his job in Ensign's office.

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

But Ensign still faced the Senate ethics investigation. The committee appointed a special counsel, Carol Elder Bruce, in January. Ensign resigned just before he was scheduled to testify before the panel. Republican Rep. Dean Heller was sworn in this week as his replacement.

The senator's public troubles began in June 2009, when Douglas Hampton threatened to tell the media about the affair.

Ensign, then considered a rising Republican star, preempted the move by admitting in a somber news conference that he had cheated on his wife with Cynthia Hampton, a longtime friend who went to high school with Ensign's wife, Darlene.

In the following months, Ensign owned up to more sordid details about his struggle to break off his relationship and keep it secret — a struggle that involved his wealthy parents, his staff and his colleagues.

A group of senators, including Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), confronted Ensign, who lived with other lawmakers in a Washington home dedicated to Christian values. They urged him to end the affair, but Ensign resisted.

The committee's report describes Cynthia Hampton as running up $1,000 in phone bills by texting Ensign while he was traveling in Iraq with a congressional delegation. Ensign told Hampton that he wanted to marry her while they attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, the report says, and used various cellphones to contact her, listing her as "Aunt Judy" in his phone to avoid being detected.

Hampton has filed for divorce and bankruptcy and "is moving out of California to work for a Christian organization," the report says. She told investigators she has not seen Ensign since 2008.

Once Ensign ended the affair, Ensign's parents paid the Hamptons $96,000, which the Hamptons described as "severance" but Ensign called a gift.

The report disputes Ensign's description, noting that the senator used the word "severance" in public comments and a private journal. He later altered a public statement to remove that word, after receiving advice that it could open him up to legal trouble, according to the report. A severance payment of that amount could be considered an excessive campaign contribution, the report says, although it notes that the Federal Election Commission has already declined to investigate the matter.

The report portrays Ensign as going to great lengths to find Douglas Hampton a job in the aftermath of the affair, giving a window onto the way favors can be traded for access in Washington. Ensign instructed an aide to ensure that a prominent donor hire Hampton or face consequences, the report alleges, citing statements from a former chief of staff.

"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 says.

In a statement to the committee, Ensign said he made it clear that he "was just recommending Hampton" and that the decision to hire was left to the client. Ensign said he never took any official action in exchange for the company's hiring Hampton.

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