Fallout from a sex scandal involving Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., now includes new allegations of an illegal cover-up.
A front page article in Friday's The New York Times details allegations that Ensign helped aide Doug Hampton violate so-called revolving door laws by helping him get lobbying work with Nevada firms.
Hampton is husband to Cindy Hampton, another former Ensign employee with whom Ensign acknowledged having an affair.
The lobbying work, according to Hampton's account, was part of an effort by Ensign to get the Hamptons out of the senator's way without the affair coming to light. Ensign's activities on Hampton's behalf could violate an ethics law that bans senior aides from lobbying the Senate for a year after leaving their posts, experts said.
Documents posted along with the story also appear to contradict Ensign's claim that a $96,000 check from his parents to the Hamptons was a gift, suggesting instead a severance payoff that should have been, but wasn't, reported as a campaign contribution.
"I think things look very bad for Ensign," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "Ensign should resign."
Kenneth Gross, a partner at Skadden's Political Law practice in Washington, D.C., with expertise in House and Senate ethics rules, says the article has allegations that spell trouble for Ensign but don't prove he broke the law.
"This could unravel in a way that is not quite as bad as it seems legally," Gross said. "However, there is definitely smoke and some fire. And this is on top of a situation where he was already reeling."
The crux of the matter is whether or not Ensign knowingly facilitated illegal lobbying activity by Hampton. Although ex-aides are prohibited from lobbying during a cooling off period, Gross said, they are allowed to consult in government affairs and work behind the scenes to coordinate relations between public and private officials.
"I do think that we still need to hear from those who are subject to this, what they knew and when they knew it, so to speak," he said.
Of The Times' portrayal of Hampton's account, he said, "Whether that is provable in a way that personally implicates the senator, the dots have not yet been connected."
Daniel Albregts, Hampton's lawyer, could not be reached for comment. An Ensign spokeswoman didn't respond to requests for comment on the article, which generated new political heat for the senator just as he appeared to be digging out from the scandal.
The prominence of the allegations and supporting documents puts the scandal directly under the nose of the Senate Ethics Committee, led by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Sloan's group had instigated an inquiry by the ethics committee after Ensign acknowledged the affair in June. The revelations in the nation's paper of record provided a megaphone for Ensign critics to demand further investigation, which could force Ensign and others to give sworn statements.
"It has sort of given this whole issue new legs, it seems to me," said Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at University of Richmond who was a founding faculty member at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Boyd School of Law. "She (Boxer) is tough. She doesn't shy away from a fight."
Natalie Ravitz, a spokeswoman for Boxer, said the committee doesn't comment on any pending investigations.
"Whenever allegations of improper conduct are brought to the attention of the Senate Ethics Committee, we open a preliminary inquiry," Ravitz said.
Tobias says it is evident the Ensign situation has the attention of the ethics committee. But it is unclear what, if any, attention the Justice Department has given the matter.
Such an investigation would be confidential and officials would be loath to publicly tip their hand, Tobias and others said.
The decision to investigate a sitting senator would reside at the highest level of the Justice Department and would likely involve consideration from Attorney General Eric Holder.
"I think his office and people pretty high up in Justice would have to sign off on it," Tobias said.
Said another legal source on condition of anonymity: "If there is a potential case against a sitting U.S. senator you can be sure federal prosecutors will be taking a good, hard look at it."
The Times story provides supporting e-mails and handwritten documents that detail Ensign's role in aiding Hampton's transition from working for the senator to government affairs work with Allegiant Travel Corp. and NV Energy. It further states Ensign helped Hampton arrange contact between his new clients and government officials in the Transportation Department. And it says that Ensign urged the Department of Interior to speed up work on an environmental review for a proposed coal plant to assist NV Energy, for whom Hampton was working.
According to Hampton, he and Ensign were knowingly violating ethics rules that prohibit congressional employees from lobbying their former employers for at least a year after leaving their government jobs.
"The only way the clients could get what John was essentially promising them -- which was access -- was if I still had a way to work with his office," Hampton was quoted as saying in The Times. "And John knew that."
Another document The Times posted appears to contradict Ensign's statements that money from his family to the Hamptons was a gift, not severance.
The document is a handwritten note by Hampton, dated April 2, 2008. Written on Hampton's Senate letterhead, The Times portrays the document as Hampton's notes from a conversation about his pending transition out of Ensign's employment.
It calls for "severance for Cindy" and "severance for Doug."
Other documents The Times posted included the $96,000 check from the Ensign family to the Hampton family and a financial disclosure from Hampton that does not report the check.
"There is new evidence it is not a gift," said Sloan, who is also a former assistant U.S. attorney. "Hampton would have no reason to be jotting notes that were lies. That's why that is considered good evidence."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3861.