Ensign staff tell ethics panel inquiry that lobbying rule-breaking was known

In depositions to the Senate Ethics Committee, staffers for Sen. John Ensign have said the Nevada Republican and his senior aides knew  a one-year lobbying ban was being broken when they helped a former staffer set up a short-lived career on K Street, according to two sources close to the investigation.

The information was provided as part of a probe the panel is conducting into payments Ensign’s parents made to Cynthia and Douglas Hampton. Ensign was having an affair with Cynthia, who is married to Douglas.

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Both worked for Ensign and Douglas Hampton was a close political aide. Ensign’s parents paid the Hamptons $96,000 once they left the senator’s employment. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Ethics panel, charging Ensign with paying the money to keep the Hamptons quiet about the affair.

The staffers told Senate Ethics investigators that several aides in the office openly discussed Douglas Hampton’s lobbying job and the one-year revolving-door ban it appeared to violate, the sources said.

At least one Ensign aide told the panel that Ensign and Hampton were so bold about the lobbying job that the pair ate lunch together at least once in the Senate dining room, the sources said.

Douglas Hampton previously has claimed that Ensign helped him with the lobbying job.

In media interviews last fall, Hampton claimed Ensign even helped solicit clients for Hampton and set up a meeting with an administration official — activity that would appear to violate the one-year revolving-door ban on former top Senate aides lobbying the Senate.

Some ethics experts would argue that if Ensign and his staff helped Hampton set up the lobbying shop, he would have participated in an effort to get around federal law prohibiting former Senate aides from lobbying members of the Senate until a year after they have left employment. Courts, however, have tended to rule conservatively on corruption cases, and it is unclear if a ruling would go against Ensign if a case got that far, according to Craig Holman, an ethics expert with Public Citizen.

Senate Ethics Committee staffers are prohibited from talking to the press and Ensign’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Ensign, who is married, has denied any wrongdoing but has acknowledged a nine-month affair with Cynthia Hampton. He also pledged to cooperate with the Ethics Committee.

“We absolutely did nothing except for comply exactly with … the ethics laws and the ethics rules of the Senate,” he told CNN in October.

“I think it’s pretty clear. I said in the past [that] I recommended him for jobs, just like I’ve recommended a lot of people,” Ensign said. “But we absolutely did nothing except for comply exactly with what the ethics laws and the ethics rules of the Senate state. We were very careful in everything that we did. You can see our statements on that.”

Holman said the revolving-door violation was fairly obvious from news reports last fall. He blamed lax ethics enforcement in Congress for Ensign’s actions.

“The reason why Ensign — and perhaps other members of Congress — believe they can get away with such violations is the lax enforcement,” Holman said. “The congressional ethics committees are notorious for looking the other way. Had the news media not revealed the scandal, I seriously doubt the Senate Ethics Committee would be conducting depositions today.”

The Ethics Committee investigation is proceeding along with a Justice Department probe. A federal grand jury subpoenaed the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) in March, a sign the Justice Department is ramping up its efforts to determine whether Ensign abused his office in the aftermath of the affair with Cynthia Hampton.

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Doug Hampton told The New York Times last year that Ensign helped him land contracts with NV Energy, the largest power company in Nevada, and Allegiant Air, a Las Vegas-based discount airline. At the time, Hampton said he had lobbied Ensign staff on both companies’ legislative agendas.

The NRSC subpoena follows a flurry of Justice Department subpoenas sent to six local Nevada businesses that had dealings with Ensign and his staff dating back to 2008.

The Nevada subpoenas sought “any and all records; including e-mails, phone calls and calendars.”

They also sought documents relating to Ensign; former Ensign Chief of Staff John Lopez; the Hamptons; and political consultants Michael Slanker and his wife, Lindsey.

Ensign headed the NRSC during the 2008 election cycle. At the beginning of his tenure at the NRSC, Ensign chose Mike and Lindsey Slanker, of the Nevada-based political consulting firm November Inc., to be the political director and finance director. They left the NRSC after Ensign’s tenure was over.

Lopez told The New York Times last year that he had raised concerns when Hampton tried to lobby him. Instead of prohibiting any future contact from Hampton, Lopez said he was told that it was his responsibility to make sure any lobbying done complied with the law.