WASHINGTON — A federal judge has ordered the Department of Justice to disclose more information about its investigation of former Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who resigned from Congress in 2011 in the midst of an ethics scandal.
The department has declined to release records from the case, citing privacy reasons under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
But U.S. District Judge John Bates, in a lawsuit brought by a watchdog group, ruled Friday that privacy was outweighed by the public’s interest in the government’s handling of the matter, including its decision not to pursue charges against the Nevada Republican.
The judge gave the Department of Justice 60 days to produce a “Vaughn Index,” an affidavit to describe each of the documents it was withholding and to explain why each one should not be made public.
“The public has a clear interest in knowing why ‘the government agency responsible for investigating and, if warranted, prosecuting (members of Congress) for alleged illegal conduct’ decided not to prosecute a senator for alleged violations of criminal law,” Bates wrote in a 20-page ruling.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the ruling.
The affidavit is expected to provide further openings for pressure to release information on the case, according to Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed the lawsuit.
“Ultimately this means there will be documents that will be released,” Sloan said. In the meantime, she said, the document index will provide clues as to what evidence investigators gathered in the course of the probe.
Ensign resigned from the Senate in May 2011 as the Senate Ethics Committee was finalizing a report that said there was evidence the Nevadan had broken laws stemming from an eight-month extramarital affair with his campaign treasurer Cynthia Hampton, and from his effort to set up her husband Doug, who also was Ensign’s top aide, as a lobbyist.
Following a yearlong investigation, the Justice Department notified Ensign’s attorneys in November 2010 it was not pursuing criminal charges against him. Questions as to why the senator was not prosecuted grew louder when the Justice Department brought charges against Doug Hampton on violations of lobbying law.
Ensign, who served 10 years as a senator, returned to Las Vegas and is a practicing veterinarian.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which pressed for investigations of Ensign since the beginning of the scandal, has contended the Justice Department goes easy on public officials accused of wrongdoing.
“Stay tuned, we are going to find out a lot more about the Ensign case,” Sloan said. “The documents hopefully will provide some insight as to what records the Justice Department had and perhaps why they did not prosecute him when they chose to prosecute Doug Hampton.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.