WASHINGTON - Federal prosecutors have reached a plea agreement on illegal lobbying charges against Doug Hampton, the former Las Vegan and U.S. Senate aide tied to the sex and corruption scandal that sank the political career of former Sen. John Ensign, according to sources and court records.
The deal expected to be outlined in federal court early next month could signal the end is near for a piece of the saga that dominated headlines for close to two years in Nevada before Ensign, a once thriving Republican, gave up a fight to stay in office and resigned in May 2011, days before he was to testify to Senate ethics investigators.
The scandal that was ignited by an affair between Ensign and Hampton's wife, Cindy, in 2007 ultimately destroyed the Hamptons' marriage, contributed to the foreclosure of their home and led to criminal charges against Hampton, who now lives in California and has been declared indigent. It also drove Ensign out of public life and back into practice as a veterinarian in Southern Nevada.
Hampton, who was Ensign's best friend and top administrative assistant, was charged in March 2011 with seven felony counts of violating the federal "revolving door" law that prohibits senior Senate staffers from lobbying for a year after leaving Capitol Hill.
As described by investigators, the arrangement was part of a payoff by Ensign to help Hampton financially after Hampton confronted his boss over the affair and ultimately left his job. Ensign denied legal wrongdoing and was not charged following a Department of Justice investigation.
Leaders of the Senate Ethics Committee, however, recommended the Justice Department take another look after releasing a 68-page report in May 2011 that said it found evidence Ensign may have violated laws including conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements in attempting to cover up the affair and smooth over its aftermath.
Details of the Hampton plea agreement were not available, as it was described as still being finalized.
A.J. Kramer, Hampton's federal public defender, declined to comment. Likewise a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington declined to comment. Efforts to reach Ensign at two animal hospitals where he practices were not successful.
In an interview in January, Ensign told Review-Journal columnist Jane Ann Morrison that he had not heard from the Justice Department in more than a year.
There was no information available Tuesday to suggest whether Hampton's plea agreement involves cooperating in any further investigation.
Attorneys familiar with the Hampton case suggested the plea deal could involve the defendant pleading guilty to a lesser charge that might allow him to escape imprisonment.
The charges on which he was indicted each carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. A guilty plea to a misdemeanor count by contrast would carry a maximum year in prison and a fine of $100,000 to $125,000, with the penalty to be set by U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell.
In any case, the plea agreement will avoid a trial that probably would have gotten under way late this year as a messy replay of the scandal that could have called as witnesses leading figures in Nevada business and Republican circles, Ensign's parents and possibly Ensign himself.
Some were drawn into the controversy when Ensign, trying to find Hampton a job, solicited friends and allies in the state including his former chief political strategist Mike Slanker and executives of Allegiant Airlines, NV Energy, Open Range, ECommlink and Switch Communications, according to the Senate ethics report.
But now, "They got a deal, there is no trial and they are done," Melanie Sloan, an ethics watchdog and former federal prosecutor, concluded after reviewing the docket that schedules a June 7 hearing on the plea agreement.
Sloan said it is unlikely Hampton will get jail time when all is said and done.
"The guy's got no criminal history and he is not a big threat to society," Sloan said. "The odds of him serving jail time are almost impossible."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.