Justice Department criticized for punting Ensign probe to FBI

The government watchdog group that is calling for a criminal investigation into payments made to U.S. Sen. John Ensign's former mistress accused the Department of Justice on Monday of shying away from a case that could be a political hot potato.

The department, in response to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington's request to look into potential criminal violations related to Ensign's affair with a former staffer, told the group to take the case to the FBI instead.

In a letter dated Thursday, the chief of the department's Public Integrity Section, William M. Welch II, wrote to CREW that any evidence of violations of federal criminal law should be provided to the FBI in Washington, D.C.

"The FBI is the investigative arm of the Department of Justice and will determine whether a federal investigation may be warranted," he wrote.

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan, in a letter forwarding the matter to Assistant FBI Director Joseph Persichini Jr. on Monday, said that "deferral of jurisdiction" was "surprising."

The Justice Department's public integrity unit has a mandate to investigate potential crimes related to political corruption and conflict of interest, she noted.

"Perhaps in the aftermath of the mishandling of the prosecution of former Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the Public Integrity Section is not eager to investigate another sitting senator," Sloan wrote.

The Justice Department, and its public integrity unit in particular, suffered a major embarrassment in April when Attorney General Eric Holder ordered that Stevens' conviction last year on felony charges be vacated based on evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.

CREW, which also has lodged ethics and campaign-finance complaints against Ensign, believes a criminal investigation is needed to determine whether Ensign, R-Nev., "engaged in criminal violations of federal campaign finance law by failing to report severance payments he made to his former mistress when he fired her from his campaign and political action committees," Sloan's letter to the FBI states.

Ensign, 51, has admitted having an affair with 46-year-old Cindy Hampton of Las Vegas for nine months ending in August 2008. Hampton was the treasurer of Ensign's Senate campaign and his Battle Born PAC until midway through the affair.

Hampton's husband, Doug, who was a top staffer in Ensign's Senate office, has alleged that the senator fired both employees in April 2008 because of the affair.

According to Ensign's lawyer, the senator's parents gave $96,000 to the Hampton family around the same time. Doug Hampton has described the payment as an employment-related severance, which could have run afoul of campaign-finance laws, but Ensign's lawyer said it was a gift and therefore legal.

CREW, a nonpartisan Washington-based group, has said the situation raises potential employment and harassment issues.

Ensign's office declined to comment on the matter Monday.

The FBI and the Justice Department did not return phone calls seeking a response to CREW.

Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.