A Washington, D.C., ethics watchdog group turned up the heat on Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., on Tuesday and said Ensign's efforts to cover up an extramarital affair were comparable to actions that in 2006 landed former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, behind bars.
In a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington detailed laws she thinks Ensign broke as he sought to manage the fallout from an affair with then-employee Cindy Hampton, wife to then-aide Doug Hampton.
Sloan says Ensign conspired to evade lobbying restrictions that prohibit former congressional workers from influencing their former colleagues for a year after leaving the government.
A willful violation of this ban is a felony, Sloan wrote in a four-page letter with 15 pages of supporting documentation.
In an interview Sloan said conspiring to evade the lobbying ban is one of the charges that stuck to Ney, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison as part of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
"I think John Ensign is in a lot of trouble here," Sloan said. "It is nearly identical behavior."
Ensign is accused of helping to line up lobbying jobs and clients for Doug Hampton in an effort to get him out of Ensign's Senate office after the affair came to light among the group's social circle but before it was known to the public.
A New York Times article last week documented evidence that Doug Hampton said showed how Ensign supported efforts to line up lobbying jobs with Nevada companies seeking access to government officials.
The Senate Select Committee on Ethics is looking into the matter, based on an earlier complaint from Sloan's group, and experts on public corruption cases say it is likely federal law enforcement officials will scrutinize the allegations.
"There is certainly a reasonable likelihood that criminal authorities will look at the conduct," said Kenneth Gross, an attorney who leads Skadden's Political Law practice in Washington, D.C., and has expertise in regulation of political activity.
Gross said the comparison of Ensign to Ney is apt, but with limitations.
"I think mentioning the fact another congressman was charged with that same violation is relevant to considering the exposure of Senator Ensign," Gross said. "However, it is not determinative of anything."
The case against Ney included allegations that Ney received hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts such as meals in fancy restaurants, luxury golf outings and tickets to high-profile sporting events. Conspiring with his former chief-of-staff to violate the lobbying ban was among the wrongdoings to which Ney admitted.
"One factor that distinguishes it is that Bob Ney was being accused of a whole host of matters involving a broad scandal that touched many players," Gross said. "It was an added charge to several others that resulted in a lengthy prison sentence."
Ensign asserts he broke no laws and committed no Senate ethical violations.
In a statement responding to the latest CREW complaint and to a subsequent interview by a news team from CNN that pursued Ensign outside his office and onto the street in Washington, D.C., Ensign's spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher maintained his innocence.
"Sen. Ensign is confident he complied with all laws and ethics rules and plans to cooperate with any inquiry," the statement said.
Sloan, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said it probably will be months before there is a resolution to the allegations against Ensign.
She said CREW raised concerns about Ney as early as 2004, but his legal fate wasn't decided until 2006.
"These things don't go quickly. It is not like you should expect to see Ensign indicted this year," she said.
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3861.