WASHINGTON -- The Department of Justice plans to review evidence gathered by the U.S. Senate on former Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, accused in a series of wrongdoings stemming from an extramarital affair, an official said Tuesday.
"We take all referrals of potential crimes seriously," said department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney. "We intend to examine thoroughly the information provided, and take any necessary and appropriate steps based on our review."
Sweeney confirmed information first reported in The New York Times that the Justice Department intended to follow up on evidence it was sent last week by leaders of the Senate Ethics Committee.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the committee chairwoman, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the vice chairman, told Attorney General Eric Holder in their referral that the panel had uncovered knowledge "giving it reason to believe Sen. Ensign and others violated laws that fall within the Department of Justice's jurisdiction."
Fresh information could lead the department to revisit the Ensign case. The department's team of public corruption lawyers was working on a probe at the same time the Senate was conducting its own 22-month investigation of Ensign.
Ensign's attorneys said in December that they were notified by Justice that the Nevadan "was no longer a target" in that investigation.
The probe did result in an indictment against Doug Hampton, a former top aide to Ensign and the husband of his mistress.
But the Senate panel continued on. It issued a report Thursday detailing Ensign's relationship over parts of 2007-08 with Cindy Hampton, his campaign treasurer and his wife's best friend.
In a report by a special counsel, Carol Elder Bruce, the six-senator panel also laid out what it said was "substantial credible evidence" that the Republican senator may have conspired with Doug Hampton to violate a federal lobbying law. It also alleged Ensign destroyed possible evidence and gave false statements to investigators.
Federal officials have not commented on why the Justice Department took a pass on Ensign last fall. Some have been signaling that the department's probe never was closed.
Some private attorneys have speculated that Justice investigators may not have had access to key witnesses who were available to the Senate. Others have said the public integrity branch may have become overly cautious in pursuing high-ranking political targets.
Boxer and Isakson also sent evidence and a referral letter to the Federal Election Commission, which had dismissed a complaint against Ensign last fall related to a $96,000 check his parents gave to the Hampton family in April 2008.
The Senate investigation turned up evidence that Ensign and his parents, Mike and Sharon Ensign, may have made false statements to the agency about the check, and that the money may have amounted to an illegal political contribution.
An FEC spokeswoman said Tuesday that the agency would not comment on the Senate referral.