Ethics panel: Ensign broke laws

Former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) broke federal laws and violated Senate rules as he tried to cover up an affair with the wife of a former campaign aide, according to a report released Thursday by the Senate Ethics Committee.

The heads of the Ethics panel — Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) — sent the 75-page report’s findings to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), advising that they had found “reason to believe Sen. Ensign violated laws within their jurisdiction.”

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The explosive findings, including an anecdote of Ensign running for cover in an airport parking lot, come less than six months after DOJ halted its probe of the Nevada senator and the FEC declined to pursue action on the matter.

A DOJ spokeswoman on Thursday said, “The department received the referral letter and would decline further comment.”

The report found that Ensign created a “web of deceit” and suggested he tried to cover up his activities through a “shredding policy” and by discouraging use of Senate email accounts. 

According to the report, Ensign helped obtain clients for Doug Hampton after he left the senator’s employ following his discovery of the affair between his wife and the lawmaker. There is a one-year ban that makes it illegal for former congressional staffers to lobby members of Congress.

Even though the committee said it “was careful not to seek intimate details of the extramarital affair referenced in the initial complaint,” at least five pages of the report are dedicated to details concerning the affair.

Among them is an assertion that Ensign initiated and pursued the affair with Cynthia Hampton after the Hamptons’ home was burglarized. The Hamptons subsequently stayed with Ensign and his wife for a period of time in November of 2007.

A month later, Doug Hampton found out about the affair by reading a text message from Ensign on his wife’s cellphone while driving to the airport. After arriving at the airport, Hampton jumped out of his car and chased Ensign, who had been in another vehicle, around the Nevada airport parking lot, according to the report.

The next day, on Christmas Eve, the Hamptons and Ensigns met and discussed the matter. After Ensign wept and apologized, the two families celebrated the holiday together with their children, according to the findings. The affair ceased for about a week, but Ensign later continued “relentless” contacts with Cynthia Hampton, who told investigators his actions caused her emotional distress and led her to seek counseling. 

On Valentine’s Day 2008, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Doug Hampton confronted Ensign about the continuing affair. Hampton nearly got into a physical confrontation with Ensign at the C Street House in Washington, but Coburn — who then lived with the Nevada senator — asked Hampton to leave, saying, “We’ll take it from here.”


Read the Ethics Committee's documents in the Ensign case:


The Ethics report also took issue with Ensign’s parents, who gave $96,000 to the Hamptons, and said the parents’ affidavits are “misleading and potentially false.” They claimed that the cash was an example of “a pattern of giving” to the Hamptons. The committee concluded no such pattern existed.

Ensign, through his attorney, Robert Walker, objected to the Ethics panel’s report. Walker said in a statement that the former senator, who resigned last week, was “confused and disappointed” by the committee’s decision not to take into account a 12-page letter he sent to panel members on Wednesday. In it, Walker defends all of Ensign’s actions and attempts to show how they do not violate any laws.

The findings in the report are based off depositions or interviews with 72 people, 32 subpoenas and a review of more than 500,000 documents.

Doug Hampton contacted Ensign’s office on at least 12 different client matters, and initiated at least 30 contacts to Ensign’s office and various other Senate offices during his one-year post-employment ban period.

The report claims that Ensign retaliated against people who would not help him. According to Ensign’s former chief of staff, Ensign cut off contact with a Nevada constituent when the businessman refused to retain Doug Hampton’s lobbying service.

In an unusual move, Boxer took to the Senate floor Thursday afternoon with fellow Ethics Committee members Isakson and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to admonish Ensign.

As if to make a visible point about the importance of the chamber’s position on the matter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) walked into the chamber halfway through Isakson’s speech and sat down next to Cardin and Brown. Reid, who helped land Hampton a job in Nevada at Ensign’s request, declined to comment about the panel’s findings.

In her floor speech, Boxer said the special counsel, who took over the investigation in February, had found Ensign’s actions to have been “so disturbing that she believed that had he not resigned the evidence of his wrongdoing would have been substantial enough to warrant the consideration of expulsion.”

The investigation into Ensign, a former leadership official, lasted 22 months.

“Sen. Ensign has admitted and apologized for his conduct and imposed on himself the highest sanction of resignation,” said Walker. “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.”

Doug Hampton is facing federal charges that he violated a one-year lobbying ban imposed on former senior congressional staffers, and is due in court in July. 

Boxer laid out the case against Ensign, saying the culmination of the investigation revealed credible evidence that Ensign had violated Senate rules or laws in eight ways:

• Ensign had conspired to violate a post-employment contact ban for former congressional employees and lawmakers.

• He had abetted an employee in violating that ban.

• Ensign had made false and misleading statements to the FEC regarding $96,000 paid to the parents of the Hamptons in the aftermath of the affair.

• The $96,000 paid to the Hamptons had violated campaign finance laws.

• Ensign had violated a law and Senate rules prohibiting unofficial office finance accounts.

• He had permitted “spoliation of documents” and engaged in potential obstruction of justice.

• He had discriminated on the basis of gender.

• Ensign had engaged in improper conduct reflecting poorly on the Senate including and violating his own office policy written down in a manual.

The former senator, who was once considering a run for the White House in 2012, cited the investigation in his resignation statement last month.