Ensign payment could be issue

Kansas gaming regulators may be forced to look into $96,000 in payments former casino executive Michael Ensign made to the family of a woman who had an affair with his son, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

However, a spokesman for the Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission cautioned on Monday that any formal inquiry into Michael Ensign, one of the principal investors in a proposed $250 million casino project near Wichita, is a long way off.

The Kansas Lottery is still negotiating with three companies seeking to operate a state-owned casino in Sumner County.

Michael Ensign, the former chairman of the Mandalay Resort Group, and former Mandalay executive Peter Simon are in partnership with several Topeka, Kan., business people as a bidder for the management contract.

The group has proposed the Western-themed Prairie Sky Casino, which would have 2,000 slot machines, 40 table games, restaurants and other entertainment options on 40 acres about 10 miles south of Wichita.

Lakes Entertainment and the Connecticut Indian tribe that owns the Foxwoods Resort are also bidding for the one gaming license.

Mike Deines, communications director for the Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission, said there are several steps to be reached before gaming investigators would be tasked with any background checks.

"It's probably a little early to be talking about this," Deines said. "The lottery is still negotiating contracts with potential managers."

Michael Ensign left the gaming industry in 2005 after MGM Mirage acquired Mandalay Resort Group for $7.9 billion. He earned more than $130 million when he sold his stock in Mandalay before the transaction closed.

Michael Ensign and his wife, Sharon, are the targets of a series of complaints filed with the Federal Election Commission, the Justice Department and Senate Ethics Committee after it was revealed they made a series of payments to Cynthia and Doug Hampton and two of their children that totaled $96,000 in April 2008.

The Hamptons both worked for Sen. Ensign, who was the No. 4-ranked Republican in the Senate before it was confirmed in June that Cynthia Hampton and Sen. Ensign had an eight-month affair.

Ensign gave up his Senate leadership role.

Ed Van Petten, executive director of the Kansas Lottery, said the payments could become an issue if they were deemed illegal or unethical. He said the lottery does not have an investigative arm and it would be up to the Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission to make a determination on Michael Ensign's suitability.

If Michael Ensign were to be denied by the commission, Van Petten said, the lottery could force his withdrawal from the project or might not allow him to have any direct involvement with the casino management.

Michael Ensign was part of a group that built the Gold Strike Casinos and helped expand the original Circus Circus Enterprises into the Mandalay Resort Group.

Simon was Ensign's partner in Gold Strike.

"We have nothing but good things to say about the group," Deines said. "Mr. Simon has provided everything that we have asked for."

Nancy Seitz, a Topeka real estate developer who has served as representative for the Prairie Sky project, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871.