Investigators seeking clues into whether Sen. John Ensign violated Senate ethics rules or federal law in an attempt to cover up an extramarital affair were in Las Vegas this week, an indication the case against the Nevada senator is gaining steam.
The investigators from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics interviewed several witnesses throughout the week to learn more about allegations that Ensign, R-Nev., used his status as a senator to help former aide Doug Hampton find work as a lobbyist, in possible violation of a "cooling off" provision for top Capitol Hill staffers. Hampton left Ensign's staff in April 2008 after discovering the affair between his wife, Cindy, and Ensign.
"This is a full-blown investigation," a source close to the investigation said. "The committee is using all of the resources at its disposal. They're trying to complete the investigation as quickly as possible."
The committee attorneys interviewed the Hamptons separately for several hours each, the source said. The interviews took place at the Las Vegas Marriott east of the Strip.
That ethics investigators traveled to Nevada to speak with witnesses in person suggests the committee is moving toward a hearing on the matter, which could result in public testimony damaging to Ensign, increasing pressure for him to resign from office.
"It is very unusual that they send people out to do this kind of investigation," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group that has been aggressively advocating for an investigation.
"They are putting way more resources and way more effort into this than anything in recent memory."
An ethics law prohibits senior aides from lobbying the Senate for a year after leaving their posts. Ensign could face ethics or criminal charges if he helped Hampton evade that restriction.
Such charges, if proved true, could prompt the Ethics Committee to vote to expel Ensign from the Senate. A concurrent investigation by the FBI and Justice Department also could result in a criminal prosecution.
Ensign maintains he broke no rules or laws. "Senator Ensign is confident he has complied with all ethics rules and laws and will cooperate with any official inquiries," spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper said.
The six-member Ethics Committee is divided equally between Democrats and Republicans and operates largely in secret.
However, Sloan said it is likely Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Vice Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., would have concurred on the decision to send investigators to interview witnesses.
Sloan thinks Ensign would be pressured by his own party to resign if it appeared an Ethics Committee hearing was inevitable, rather than have the scandal dog Republicans during the upcoming midterm elections.
"Republicans will not let that happen," she said. "They are not going to want this to be right before the midterms."
Among other things, sources said, Senate investigators are looking at whether Ensign violated lobbying laws in his efforts to help Doug Hampton find a new job after the affair came to light. Investigators are trying to track any phone calls or other overtures Ensign made on Hampton's behalf.
Las Vegas attorney Dan Albregts, who represents both Hamptons, confirmed that the couple were questioned, but he declined to discuss their interviews or comment further on the investigation.
Three veteran political strategists, Sig Rogich, Billy Vassiliadis and Pete Ernaut, all confirmed they were interviewed this week.
Rogich said Friday he was questioned for about 20 minutes but had little information to offer investigators.
In March, Rogich acknowledged investigators were seeking information about any communication with Ensign and Hampton.
Rogich said at the time Ensign had called about a year earlier and asked whether Rogich would meet Hampton. The meeting occurred, but Rogich said he didn't offer Hampton any work.
Vassiliadis said Friday he met with investigators for about 1½ hours, but he would not discuss what he told them.
Ernaut, who was Ensign's campaign chairman in 2000 and 2006, said investigators interviewed him for about two hours.
Ernaut also declined to discuss what he told investigators, but he confirmed FBI agents previously had interviewed him.
Attorney George Kelesis said his client, businessman Derek LaFavor, spent about 30 minutes with investigators at the Marriott.
The Senate attorneys wanted to know about a meeting longtime Ensign supporter Jim Hammer had arranged between LaFavor and the senator, Kelesis said.
Ensign solicited campaign contributions at the meeting from LaFavor, who runs FiTech, an online financial products company, but did not ask him to find a job for Hampton, Kelesis said.
"My client's interaction with Ensign's people was very minimal," Kelesis said.
If the Senate committee were to hold a public hearing regarding Ensign, it would be the first such hearing since a 1991 inquiry into the "Keating five," a scandal in which five senators were accused of pressuring federal officials to back off an investigation into banking executive Charles Keating in exchange for campaign contributions from Keating.
In 1995, the committee considered a public hearing in the case of Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., who was accused of sexual misconduct involving female staff members. The committee decided against holding a hearing, but the prospect of one and an expulsion vote prompted Packwood to resign.