WASHINGTON -- Early in 2008, then-Sen. John Ensign put in place a document-shredding program for his office staff.
Around the same time, he approached his chief of staff about communicating by text messages rather than email.
The Nevada Republican also took steps to formalize a policy under which all staff inquiries to the Senate Ethics Committee would be routed through his top aide, John Lopez.
Ensign's sudden interest in tightening up his operation came as he was coming under increasing pressure to abandon an extramarital affair with Cindy Hampton, both a staffer and the wife of another top aide.
With husband Doug Hampton pressing Ensign personally and through the senator's friends and father to stop pursuing his wife, Ensign was in the process of planning a way out of his dilemma, and it proved to be tricky.
Ensign's solution amounted to expelling Hampton from his staff and setting him up in a new job, including cajoling and threatening supporters and associates in Nevada to hire the former aide as a lobbyist, according to a report made public last week by the Senate Ethics Committee.
The steps that Ensign took to cover up his tangled relationships with the Hamptons was a major thread that ran through an account of the former senator's sex and corruption scandal that was pieced together by investigators for the committee.
A 68-page report released Thursday concluded the Nevada Republican violated Senate rules and cast a shadow on the chamber through his affair and in its aftermath, and might have broken federal laws in the process.
Apparent efforts at cover-up also formed a basis for the accusation that Ensign engaged in potential obstruction of justice.
The allegation was a previously unknown part of the Senate's 22-month probe of Ensign, who resigned on May 3 but remains exposed to further criminal investigation.
Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the Ethics Committee leaders, said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that the panel also found evidence that Ensign engaged in conspiracy, gave false statements and violated campaign finance laws stemming from the affair.
COVER-UPS MAKE THINGS WORSE
Legal experts say accusations of obstruction are not uncommon in cases involving sex. Often a cover-up merely compounds the wrongdoing.
"In this case, the crime is the cover-up," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. "The problem with public officials who engage in sexual misconduct, as Senator Ensign clearly did, is that the underlying conduct is immoral and problematic.
"But in terms of where the rubber hits the road, they can't help themselves, and usually abuse their office to help the affair along or protect themselves from disclosures. You see that through and through with Ensign."
The obstruction allegations also are likely to provide fresh grounds for the Justice Department, lawyers said.
The Justice Department had conducted an investigation but told Ensign's lawyers last fall they had no plans at that time to charge him with crimes.
"It's different, it's new, and it's separate," Stanley Brand, a prominent Washington attorney and former general counsel to the House of Representatives, said of the new evidence.
In his cellphone, Ensign kept Cindy Hampton's number under a listing for "Aunt Judy," investigators said. He created email accounts with fictitious names for their communications, including the Yahoo accounts fredschwartz72, mariaschwartz and maryholland82.
But the matter turned legally dicey for Ensign after he disclosed the affair in June 2009 and immediately came under scrutiny by ethics watchdog groups and eventually Senate authorities who began asking questions.
ELECTRONIC FILES DELETED
According to the Ethics Committee, Ensign deleted files from his computers after knowing they were likely to be of interest to investigators, and after receiving formal notices, the first one coming on Oct. 21, 2009, to retain all relevant documents.
Ensign's personal Gmail account, which he generally used instead of official Senate email, already had been deleted on Oct. 1, and was not available to be reviewed by investigators.
It was seven months later, in April 2010, that Ensign called attention to his home computer, which then also was examined by investigators. Ensign told the committee that he "simply did not think of this computer" because he used it infrequently for work.
"There is no evidence that the senator took any steps at any time to alter his email deletion practices to ensure that his office was retaining his emails pertinent to the matter at issue," wrote Carol Elder Bruce, the special counsel hired by the Ethics Committee to help pull together the investigation and report its findings.
Bruce wrote: "Senator Ensign permitted his staff to delete and replace his personal Gmail account containing emails related to Senate activities on October 1, 2009, and he acknowledged in a subsequent affidavit that he had continued to routinely delete emails from his home desktop computer as well as his personal Gmail account following the issuance of preservation notices."
Bruce wrote that she and committee staff members became suspicious when reviewing logs of documents presented by Ensign's lawyers indicating which ones might be privileged and shielded from disclosure.
"Special counsel and committee staff jointly concluded there was evidence of potential deletion of relevant materials, unexplained gaps in production and serious factual and legal insufficiencies in the privilege logs," she wrote.
Senate investigators had hired CACI, an information technology firm, to gather and review electronic documents.
Forensic investigators scoured images of Ensign's two laptops and his BlackBerry.
The analysis indicated that as many as 174 emails may have been deleted following the issuance of preservation notices, the committee said.
At least five were found to be deleted from Ensign's own laptop, including a "highly relevant" draft that addressed a $96,000 check to the Hamptons from Ensign's parents, a key element in the investigation.
Yorick Jurani, Ensign's information systems manager, and Lopez, his former chief of staff, were granted immunity from prosecution and were questioned by investigators.
Forensic imaging of Lopez's personal laptop uncovered 1,643 documents, and another 429 were produced from the server of R&R Partners, where Lopez went to work as a vice president of government and public affairs after leaving Ensign's staff in November 2009.
IN ENSIGN'S DEFENSE
Ensign attorneys Robert Walker and Abbe Lowell presented the Senate committee with a 12-page document in his defense on Wednesday.
On the issue of obstruction, they said Ensign failed to understand the document preservation notices, but had no intent to impede investigators.
They said Ensign turned over plenty of other "embarrassing and potentially damaging evidence" used to advance a case against him.
"Senator Ensign may have made mistakes in connection with preservation of some materials in connection with this matter," the lawyers said. "He may have made a mistake in failing to realize that his computer in his home was covered by the committee's requests in this matter."
The attorneys said Ensign deleted his Gmail account after his address was published in the New York Times and he was concerned about hackers.
"He does wish to apologize if any material relevant to its inquiry was deleted because of his lack of focus," the attorneys said. "He acknowledges that the committee would even be justified in calling these stupid mistakes on his part because, he acknowledges, that's what they were.
"But he wants to emphasize to the committee that he did not delete or destroy evidence to conceal it from the committee or to impede the inquiry in any way."
Paul Coggins, an attorney representing Ensign in the criminal elements of the case, said Thursday, "I am confident that the Department of Justice will conclude that Senator Ensign fully complied with the law."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.