FEC dismisses complaint against Ensign over payments to former mistress

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has dismissed a complaint against Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) that accused him of improperly paying a former aide and mistress nearly $100,000 in hush money.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) took issue with $96,000 payments Ensign’s parents made to Cynthia Hampton, the wife of a former Ensign campaign staffer, after media outlets reported the senator’s affair with her and the subsequent payments. 

CREW considered the payment illegal because media reports had referred to it as a severance payment even though the money had not come from Ensign’s personal campaign committee or his leadership PAC.

In its dismissal letter, the FEC cited a response by Michael Ensign, John Ensign’s father, arguing that the $96,000 payments were legal gifts of $12,000 each to Cynthia Hampton, her husband, Doug, and their two children.

“The responses state that the Ensigns gave the gifts ‘out of concern for the well-being of long-time family friends’ after the Ensigns were informed of the relationship between their son and Cynthia Hampton,” the FEC said in its explanation. “The Ensigns wanted to give a $100,000 gift, but instead gave $96,000 because the multiple $12,000 gifts would fit within the maximum permitted tax-free gift limits under IRS gift tax rules.”

Michael and Sharon Ensign, John Ensign’s parents, signed sworn affidavits stating that they did not intend the gifts to the Hampton family to be severance, and that these gifts were “part of a pattern of significant financial gifts from the Ensign family to the Hamptons over several years.”

Ensign’s parents also said that neither their son nor anyone else asked them to make the gifts, nor did anyone suggest that the payments should function as severance to Cynthia Hampton or her husband.

CREW executive director Melanie Sloan condemned the decision and said the FEC ignored the evidence that the Hamptons themselves considered the payment to be severance, including Doug Hampton’s notes from conversations he had in which he had referred to the payments as severance.

“As usual, when confronted with evidence of campaign finance violations, the FEC did exactly nothing,” Sloan said in a statement. “Luckily for the American people, this matter remains under investigation by the Department of Justice and the Senate Ethics Committee, so there is still a chance for Sen. Ensign to be held accountable for his outrageous and likely illegal conduct.”

The senator admitted in June 2009 that he had an extramarital affair with Cynthia Hampton that ended in 2008.

Ensign remains under criminal investigation by the Justice Department’s public integrity committee for allegedly violating federal lobbying restrictions when he helped Doug Hampton get a job as a lobbyist after he left his job as a top aide in Ensign’s Senate office.