After a 22-month investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee unanimously found that the evidence against embattled, now-retired Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., is significant enough to warrant a referral of the case to both the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission. Ensign, two years ago, admitted to a sexual affair with a top aide's wife, after which the senator's mother and father each gave the legal limit for political contributions, $96,000, to the aide, Doug Hampton, and his family.
According to the report by the committee's outside special counsel, Carol Elder Bruce, the investigation, which involved forensic tests, hundreds of interviews, and the review of thousands of documents, found "substantial credible evidence that provides substantial cause to conclude that Senator Ensign violated Senate Rules and federal civil and criminal laws, and engaged in improper conduct reflecting upon the Senate, thus betraying the public trust and bringing discredit to the Senate."
Ensign lawyer, Paul Coggins, in an e-mailed statement to reporters said, "I am confident that the Department of Justice will conclude that Senator Ensign fully complied with the law." Ensign has also retained high-profile defense lawyer, Abbe Lowell, famous as the chief investigator in the House of Representatives for the impeachment trial of former President Bill Clinton, as well as, for defending disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Ethics Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in a Senate floor speech Thursday that Bruce "believed had Ensign not resigned...the evidence of Senator Ensign's wrongdoing would have been substantial enough to warrant expulsion, the harshest punishment available" to the committee.
The panel's top Republican, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, said he was proud of the committee's work, but added that it's a job "I hope I never have to do again."
Special Counsel Bruce, in her 75-page report, laid out seven separate findings of wrongdoing: 1 - "There is substantial, credible evidence that Senator Ensign conspired to violate, and aided and abetted Mr. Hampton's violation of the post employment contact ban." 2 - "There Is substantial credible evidence that Senator Ensign and his parents made false or misleading statements to the Federal Election Commission regarding the $96,000 payment to the Hamptons." 3 - "There is substantial credible evidence that a portion of the $96,000 payment constituted an unlawful and unreported campaign contribution and violated federal law and a Senate rule prohibiting unofficial office accounts." 4 - "There is substantial credible evidence that Senator Ensign permitted spoliation of documents and engaged in potential obstruction of justice violations." 5 - "There Is substantial credible evidence that Senator Ensign discriminated on the basis of sex and engaged in improper conduct reflecting upon the Senate by terminating the Hamptons employment because of the affair." 6 - "There Is substantial credible evidence that Senator Ensign violated his own Senate office policies." 7 - "The special counsel recommends referrals to the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission."
A further statement from Ensign's lawyers reads, "While the (sic) Senator Ensign acknowledges the consideration the Committee has given him until this point, he 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." It further adds, "Senator Ensign has admitted and apologized for his conduct and imposed on himself the highest sanction of resignation. 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."
The Ethics Committee investigation offers revealing facts into the torrid affair Ensign carried on with his staffer's wife, Cindy Hampton, and the great lengths to which the married senator went to conceal his affair. At one point, when colleagues confronted Ensign, including Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a church deacon who often serves as a spiritual counselor to his colleagues, Ensign tried to lie; he even faked a letter to Cindy Hampton allegedly ending the affair, though he called her shortly after to say it was a lie.
Ensign moved out of his family home for a time, living with his parents. The report says he purchased two cell phones for Cindy Hampton "so that they could communicate without detection." Seventy-six text messages were sent between Ensign and his lover in just a three-day period. "Ensign also created e-mail accounts with fictitious names in order to email Ms. Hampton, including firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org," the report details.
Coburn then, according to Bruce, decided to bring in more colleagues to confront Ensign, though the report does not state who. Once the affair ended, Cindy and Doug Hampton were offered what was called "severance pay" - the $96,000.
Ensign's legal team, in its submission to the Ethics Committee, maintained that it was not "severance pay" and maintained that the money was merely a "gift check."
And though the Ethics Committee charged that Ensign knowingly destroyed documents, the senator's legal team argued that he merely closed e-mail accounts, because he feared being hacked after it was revealed in news reports that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was a victim of hackers.
Cindy Hampton told the committee that Ensign "ruined" her life. She filed for divorce and moved to California "to work for a Christian organization," the report says.
The report details how Ensign helped Doug Hampton find work, and even at times, used threats to get what he wanted. "Senator Ensign's assistance in finding clients for Mr. Hampton exceeded the typical provision of references and, on occasion, Senator Ensign used his office and staff to intimidate and cajole constituents into hiring Mr. Hampton," the report states, adding, " One Las Vegas consultant, who urged a local developer not to hire Hampton, got a call from a close Ensign contact, at the senator's behest, with a threat to "jack him up to high heaven and tell him that he is cut off from the office and never to contact [Senator Ensign] ever again."
Ensign's legal team stated that Ensign was not aware of nor intended to violate any laws related to the post-employment situation of Doug Hampton. "Senator Ensign's discussions of lobbying employment for (Doug) Hampton...were neither illegal nor improper," the document states.
The Ethics Committee also provides a detailed account of Doug Hampton's efforts to get monetary damages from the senator. At one point, Hampton, dissatisfied, tried to go to the media, including Fox News, to no avail. He even tried to pull in former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who immediately informed Ensign.
Coburn even acted as an intermediary for a time with Hampton's lawyer, according to the report, offering that "the Ensigns should buy the Hamptons home because it is so close to the Ensigns, and the Hamptons should receive an amount of money above and beyond that to start over, buy a new home, have some living money while they were looking for new employment, and possibly some seed money to send the children off to college."
Before public disclosure of the affair, according to the report, Ensign took pains to involve his staff in an effort to "reduce the preservation of records in the office" and "minimize contacts with outside parties including the Senate Ethics Committee." He even had staff move from e-mail to a system of messaging that leaves no concrete trail.
Ensign abruptly resigned earlier this month, saying he had broken no rules or laws, a statement with which Chairman Boxer, on Thursday, "strongly" disagreed. But the quick move froze the committee investigation in place, stopping the next phase of its investigation, an embarrassing public trial.
Finally, Boxer implored her colleagues to read the committee's report on Ensign, and pleaded, "When you are in a position of power, don't violate it, because people can get hurt, very, very hurt."