Ethics panel gets complaints on Ensign

WASHINGTON -- Nevada Sen. John Ensign's troubles heightened Wednesday when an ethics watchdog group filed complaints urging Senate and federal election officials to investigate unanswered questions about his extramarital affair.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington submitted an eight-page complaint to the Senate Ethics Committee, which has broad jurisdiction to probe allegations of impropriety by senators.

The group said the Republican senator may have violated federal law and Senate rules against sexual harassment.

Separately in a filing with the Federal Elections Commission, the group alleged possible violations of federal campaign law in urging the agency to investigate whether Ensign made unreported payments to his mistress, who had worked for his political organizations.

The Senate ethics committee did not comment on the Ensign matter. Generally the filing of an ethics complaint triggers a preliminary inquiry that could include the committee issuing subpoenas for relevant documents and witnesses to be interviewed.

The committee, a six-member panel comprised of three Democrats and three Republicans, faces no deadlines in pursuing allegations, and its staff conducts its investigations under strict confidentiality rules.

The ethics complaints raise the stakes from the affair that Ensign acknowledged having from December 2007 to August 2008 with a close family friend from Las Vegas who worked for his two political organizations.

At the same time Ensign was conducting a relationship with Cindy Hampton, 46, her husband, Doug, was a senior administrative aide on the senator's personal staff. Both left Ensign's employ at the end of April 2008.

In a letter Doug Hampton, 47, wrote this month to the Fox News Channel, he said they were dismissed as an outcome of Ensign's "conduct and relentless pursuit of my wife."

George R. Clark, an ethics attorney in Washington who has had clients before the Senate panel, said the complaints raise issues that should draw the Senate's attention.

"For the Senate ethics committee, the question is just what will they want to do," Clark said. "Will there be supporting documentation they can look at? The sex harassment angle is an interesting one and should give the committee some pause rather than dismissing it out of hand."

"I regard these as two serious complaints," Clark said.

The Senate complaint filed by the ethics group, also known by its acronym CREW, was accompanied by exhibits that consisted largely of news reports detailing information about the scandal as they emerged since Ensign acknowledged the affair on June 16.

Although some of the reports may not hold up, they give the ethics committee plenty to work with, Clark said.

Ensign's office had no comment Wednesday. Daniel Albregts, a Las Vegas attorney for Doug and Cindy Hampton, could not be reached after a message was left for him requesting comment.

Reports of a senator's extramarital affair that involved employees and that reportedly involved their terminations should trigger a Senate investigation, CREW said in the complaint signed by executive director Melanie Sloan.

If the discharge of the Hamptons is true and was related to the affair, Ensign may have engaged in sex harassment in violation of the Title VII federal law, and Senate Rule 42, according to the ethics complaint. Both prohibit sex discrimination in the workplace.

In that way, CREW said, the Ensign scandal might be compared to the one that led to the 1995 resignation of Sen. Robert Packwood, R-Ore. Packwood quit under threat of expulsion after a Senate investigation substantiated a pattern of misconduct that included sexual advances on female staffers and lobbyists.

One of the exhibits CREW presented to the Senate was the ethics committee's resolution of May 17, 1995 disclosing its findings in the Packwood case.

"Sen. Ensign's stunning abuse of power shocks the conscience," Sloan said in a statement. "Sen. Ensign has replaced Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, as the latest poster senator for bad judgment and hypocrisy."

In Ensign's case, CREW also urged the Senate and the FEC to investigate media reports that he paid Cindy Hampton a severance when she stopped work as treasurer of his Ensign for Senate re-election committee, and his personal political action committee, Battle Born PAC.

Such payments are required by federal law to be reported, even if paid out of personal funds. Neither of Ensign's committees reported a payment to Cindy Hampton.

At the Federal Election Commission, the Office of General Counsel within five days forwards complaints to the respondent, in this case Ensign, and would give him 15 days to argue why the complaint should be dropped, according to agency rules.

Beyond that the case would be referred to an FEC attorney, and brought before the commission for a vote whether to proceed to a full investigation.

The commission has six members split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, an arrangement that critics say often leads to gridlock and has given the agency a reputation for being toothless.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Steve Tetreault@stetreault@stephens or 202-783-1760.