Ethics Committee refers Ensign case to Justice

Former Sen. John Ensign of Nevada broke federal law, made false statements to the Federal Election Commission and obstructed a Senate Ethics Committee's investigation into his conduct, the panel...

Former Sen. John Ensign of Nevada broke federal law, made false statements to the Federal Election Commission and obstructed a Senate Ethics Committee's investigation into his conduct, the panel said Thursday in a scathing report that sent the matter to the Justice Department for possible prosecution.

The former Republican lawmaker "created a web of deceit that entangled and compromised numerous people," the committee said, adding that it had assembled enough evidence to warrant possible expulsion had Ensign not resigned.

Ensign quit May 3, one day before he was to have testified under oath about an affair with the wife of a top aide, the aide's subsequent lobbying of Ensign's office, and a payment from Ensign's parents to the one-time aide's family.

The committee asked the FEC to conduct its own investigation, concluding that Ensign made false statements to the agency about the payment to the former aide's family.

The Senate committee hired former federal prosecutor Carol Elder Bruce to complete its investigation and relied on her findings in making the referrals to the Justice Department and FEC. Besides the legal issues, the committee revealed information about the affair itself, and efforts of those close to Ensign to get him to end it.

"The special counsel is confident that the evidence that would have been presented in an adjudicatory hearing would have been substantial and sufficient to warrant the consideration of the sanction of expulsion," the report said.

The report added that while "concealment is part of the anatomy of an affair, the concealment conduct ... by Sen. Ensign exceeded the normal acts of discretion."

The Ethics Committee chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told the Senate in a speech: "When Sen. Ensign resigned he said, and I quote, 'I have not violated any law, rule or standard of conduct.' I want to go on record ... to say how strongly I disagree with that statement."

The Senate cannot punish someone who is no longer serving, but the referrals ensure that investigations of Ensign will go on for some time. His lawyers had announced last December that the Justice Department was no longer targeting him.

Ensign has acknowledged an affair with Cynthia Hampton, a former campaign treasurer. She's the wife of Douglas Hampton, who was Ensign's administrative assistant.

One major focus of the investigation was the payment, by Ensign's parents, of $96,000 to the Hampton family. The committee concluded that Ensign and his parents made false or misleading statements to the FEC about the money, which amounted to severance payments to Cynthia and Douglas Hampton.

The committee also said the portion of the payment that was severance for Cynthia Hampton was an excessive and illegal campaign contribution because it exceeded federal limits.

The second major focus was Ensign's connection to Douglas Hampton's work as a lobbyist for two Nevada firms after he left Ensign's staff. Federal law prohibits a senior Senate aide from lobbying the Senate for one year after ending employment.

The report said Ensign conspired to violate the restriction, and aided and abetted Hampton's violations of the prohibition.

Beyond those conclusions, the committee said that Ensign deleted documents and files after he knew they were likely to be subject of legal proceedings; and committed sexual discrimination against Ms. Hampton while she was an employee of his campaign committee. The report said the affair was unwelcome to her, even though she eventually agreed to it.

Ensign lawyers Robert Walker and Abbe Lowell said in a statement that the former senator is "confused and disappointed that the committee would consider his case and issue its report without waiting for and considering our submission, which it received yesterday."

The statement also said: "The senator resigned just last week and we had asked the committee to allow a submission from us on several, obviously complicated issues. Given his resignation and announcement that he was not running for re-election, there does not seem to be any real reason for a rush to create a report that did not fully consider our submission and which did not allow us to follow up on any remaining issues."

Ensign has admitted and apologized for his conduct, according to the statement, but "this is not the same as agreeing that he did or intended to violate any laws or rules."

The committee didn't hold back in revealing some aspects of Ensigns' affair. The Hamptons and the Ensigns had been longtime friends before the relationship began.

"Sen. Ensign told Ms. Hampton that he wanted to marry her while they attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington," the report revealed.

The day before Christmas 2007, the Hamptons went to the Ensigns' home and both the senator and Cynthia Hampton said the affair would stop. The senator wept and apologized. The couples, with their children, then celebrated Christmas together, the report said.

But the affair did not end.

On Feb. 16, 2008, a spiritual adviser to Ensign was called by Douglas Hampton, who had spotted the senator's car and Ms. Hampton's car at a hotel close to the Hamptons' neighborhood.

The report said that the adviser called the senator and told him: "I know exactly where you are. I know exactly what you are doing. Put your pants on and go home."

Ensign, the report said, replied, "I can't, I love her."

Douglas Hampton has been indicted on charges of lobbying Ensign and his staff in violation of the one-year prohibition. He has pleaded not guilty.

___

Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

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