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A Cheat Sheet for Former Sen. Ensign's Ethics Saga

The Senate Ethics Committee has referred Ensign’s case to the Justice Department, but whether the evidence uncovered results in anything more than embarrassment remains to be seen.

It’s been a couple years now since the troubles of now-former Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign first hit headlines, but given that the Senate Ethics Committee just yesterday referred Ensign’s case to the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission, it may be time for a quick refresher.

According to the committee’s 75-page report, Ensign likely broke federal law and Senate rules when he tried to cover up his extramarital affair with the wife of a close aide. The report noted that investigators were careful not to seek details of the affair itself—that is “generally the couple’s own business to deal with,” it said—but focused instead on how efforts to conceal the affair broke ethics rules.

The lawmaker resigned from his post last week—just one day before he was scheduled to be questioned by the panel under oath, the report said. The resignation allowed Ensign to both avoid that deposition and ultimately avoid disciplinary action by the committee that could have included being thrown out of the Senate. From the report, emphasis ours:

Had Senator Ensign not resigned the Special Counsel would have recommended that the Committee initiate an adjudicatory review for the purpose of considering the appropriateness of disciplinary action against the Senator. The Special Counsel is confident that the evidence that would have been presented in an adjudicatory hearing would have been substantial and sufficient to warrant the consideration of the sanction of expulsion.

Talking Points Memo has you covered on the juicy details of the scandal itself. As far as the former lawmaker’s ethical and legal violations go, the report found evidence that after his affair, Ensign crossed the line when he: fired both his lover, Cindy Hampton, and her husband; made a $96,000 severance payment to the Hamptons; gave Hampton lobbying contacts; and—stop for a breath—deleted and destroyed documents and files that could be used in legal proceedings against him. (The Associated Press has a timeline of most of these events.)

In doing so, the report found that Ensign likely violated his own Senate office policies against sexual harassment and obstructed justice by ignoring a formal notice to keep all documents once the panel began its inquiry. The report also alleged that the severance payments amounted to an unlawful and unreported campaign contribution, and that both Ensign and his parents lied to or misled the FEC about the payment.

Ensign also pressured constituents to hire John Hampton and reportedly told his chief of staff to tell a constituent that he was “cut off” from Ensign after he declined to hire Hampton, the panel detailed. Once Hampton became a lobbyist, the continued contact between Hampton and Ensign’s office violated rules requiring a “cooling-off” period before congressional staff-turned-lobbyists lobby their old offices, according to the ethics report.

Hampton was indicted for violating this lobbying ban in March, although that indictment did not name Ensign, the New York Times noted. (The Times compiled a document trail of communications between the two.)

Ensign has publicly admitted the affair but has maintained he didn't do anything illegal.  

“While I stand behind my firm belief that I have not violated any law, rule, or standard of conduct of the Senate, and I have fought to prove this publicly, I will not continue to subject my family, my constituents, or the Senate to any further rounds of investigation, depositions, drawn out proceedings, or especially public hearings,” he said in his resignation letter.

The Justice Department dropped an earlier investigation of Ensign late last year without bringing charges. The FEC also dismissed a complaint against him. If neither of those agencies take up the ethics committee’s referral, Ensign may end up facing few consequences besides embarrassment.

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