WASHINGTON -- The parents of Sen. John Ensign might have violated campaign finance law in giving $96,000 last year to the family of the senator's former aide and mistress, an ethics group said Friday.
The payment to Cindy Hampton's family was described by an Ensign attorney as a legally permitted "gift." But Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington questioned whether it was actually an employment severance, which could make it illegal under campaign finance regulations.
Hampton's husband, Doug, has described the money as severance related to her departure from Ensign's campaign staff. She was treasurer of Ensign's re-election campaign and his personal political action committee, Battle Born PAC, while Doug Hampton served as a top official in Ensign's Senate office.
The watchdog group, CREW, said in a letter to the Federal Election Commission on Friday that severance payments in the amounts indicated would have violated federal limits on campaign gifts. Ensign's lawyer said Mike and Sharon Ensign, the senator's parents, each gave $12,000 to four members of the Hampton family -- Doug, Cindy and two of their three children.
"There is no way Michael and Sharon Ensign could have both made $12,000 severance payments to Cindy Hampton without violating the dollar limits," CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in the letter to the commission.
The group had filed an FEC complaint against Ensign on June 24. On Friday, it asked the agency to expand its investigation to include the senator's parents.
Ensign's office had no comment on the matter Friday. In disclosing the $96,000 payment, Ensign's Dallas-based attorney, Paul Coggins, said, "None of the gifts came from campaign or official funds, nor were they related to any campaign or official duties."
Ensign has admitted that he had an extramarital affair with Cindy Hampton from December 2007 to August 2008. The $96,000 payment came in April 2008, Coggins said. By the beginning of May 2008, both Doug and Cindy Hampton had left the senator's payroll.
In televised interviews, Doug Hampton accused Ensign of forcing the couple out of his employ because of the affair -- then continuing to pursue the relationship nonetheless.
Candidates and PACs are required to file reports with the FEC that show all contributions they've received from political donors and all expenditures they've made on their campaigns.
In the campaign-finance reports that show the salary paid to Cindy Hampton by the Ensign committee and PAC, no severance payment is listed as an expenditure, nor is there an "in-kind" contribution from Mike and Sharon Ensign.
Under federal law, individuals may contribute $4,800 per election cycle to a candidate and $5,000 per year to a PAC. Thus, the most Mike or Sharon Ensign each could have contributed to the two committees would have been $9,800.
Therefore, if the payments were a severance, they were both in excess of contribution limits and illegally unreported, Sloan's letter states.
Review-Journal writer Molly Ball contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.