DOJ ordered to turn over documents in Ensign probe

The Justice Department is being forced to hand over an index of every document amassed in its criminal investigation of former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.).

The federal court decision will grant the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) watchdog group a broad list of what documents the DOJ possesses and the reasons why Justice is arguing to withhold them from the public.

CREW first began pressing for the release of the investigatory materials in late 2010 when it filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request after Ensign claimed that the DOJ had completed its investigation of him.

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Justice’s probe spawned from an extramarital affair Ensign had with the wife of his former chief of staff, which snowballed into allegations that he violated numerous federal laws and congressional ethics rules in attempts to cover the affair up.

In May 2011, the Senate Ethics Committee released a rare report that it took nearly two years to complete. It found credible evidence that Ensign violated Senate rules and campaign finance laws, lied to the Federal Election Commission, and permitted the destruction of documents in an attempt to thwart investigators.

Ensign had announced his resignation a month before the ethics report's release.

Initially, CREW pushed the DOJ’s criminal division, the FBI, and the executive office for U.S. Attorneys for access to the documents. But they all denied the group’s FOIA request.

The group appealed the refusal and was refused again by the DOJ’s Office of Information Policy, which held that releasing the documents “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

And then in September 2012, CREW filed a lawsuit with U.S. District Court of D.C., where Judge John Bates ruled last Friday that the DOJ is required to turn over a so-called “Vaughn Index.” The index lists all of the documents on the Ensign case that it possesses and the varying justifications for refusing to turn over each one.

“[S]ubmission of a Vaughn Index here will not harm Senator Ensign’s privacy interests in not being identified as the subject of an investigation — that ship has sailed,” Bates wrote in his decision. 

The DOJ has 60 days from Aug. 23 to hand over the list of Ensign documents.