Ethics Committee Refers Ensign Case to Justice

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WASHINGTON - Former Sen. John Ensign of Nevada 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 a criminal investigation.

Ensign, a Nevada Republican, resigned his seat May 3 rather than face continued scrutiny and possible public hearings about his affair with the wife of one of his top Senate aides, a payment to the aide's family, and the aide's lobbying after leaving Senate employment.

The committee also asked the FEC to investigate possible campaign finance law violations.

"When Sen. Ensign resigned he said and I quote, 'I have not violated any law, rule or standard of conduct,"' committee Chairman Barbara Boxer told the Senate. "I want to go on record ... to say how strongly I disagree with that statement."

The committee has been investigating Ensign for 22 months. The Senate cannot punish a member no longer serving, but the referrals ensure that investigation of Ensign will go on for some time.

Ensign has acknowledged an affair with Cynthia Hampton, a former campaign treasurer. She's the wife of Douglas Hampton, who was Ensign's co-chief of staff.

The investigation has focused on at least two developments that followed disclosure of the affair.

Ensign's parents paid the Hampton family $96,000, raising the question of whether the money was an illegal contribution to the senator's campaign. Douglas Hampton said the money was a severance payment.

Another 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.

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 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."

T

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

The committee said evidence showed that Ensign:

-Aided and abetted violations of a one-year ban on former employees lobbying the Senate.

-Conspired to violate that restriction.

-Made false statements to the FEC.

-Violated campaign finance laws.

-Obstructed the ethics committee's preliminary inquiry.

The committee found that Ensign's affidavit to the FEC falsely contended the payment to Douglas Hampton was a gift, not severance. Ensign had referred to the payment as severance on multiple occasions, including during an emergency staff meeting in June 2009 when he disclosed his affair to his employees.

The committee said there was substantial evidence of obstruction of justice when Ensign deleted relevant documents and files before and after the committee told him they must be retained.

Hampton has been indicted on charges of lobbying Ensign and his staff in violation of that restriction. He pleaded not guilty.

The Hampton indictment said that while lobbying for Allegiant Air, a low-cost carrier in Las Vegas, the former Ensign aide sought the assistance of the senator and a legislative aide to Ensign. Hampton wanted help in persuading the Transportation Department to reconsider its position on a fuel surcharge pricing issue, the indictment said.

Hampton allegedly sought the aid of Ensign and his staff to help schedule a March 2009 meeting involving the secretary of transportation and executives from the airline company.

The indictment said that, on behalf of NV Energy, the largest electricity provider in Nevada, Hampton sought assistance from Ensign and his chief of staff to expedite the release of a U.S. Interior Department environmental impact statement regarding a coal-fired power plant.

The effort was designed to allow the energy company to move forward on its delayed proposal to build the plant, the indictment said.

Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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