WASHINGTON -- John Ensign got out before he could be tossed out. But his troubles might not be over.
That was the message Thursday from leaders of the Senate Ethics Committee who released the findings of a 22-month investigation into the former Republican senator from Nevada.
Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the panel found evidence substantial enough to have considered expelling Ensign from the Senate, had he not already resigned. Moreover, it voted unanimously to refer its findings to the Department of Justice and to the Federal Election Commission for possible prosecution.
Boxer said the committee found evidence that Ensign "violated laws within their jurisdictions," including conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements to authorities. She delivered a 10-minute Senate speech that amounted to a strong public rebuke of Ensign, 53, who resigned from the Senate on May 3.
Ensign, who was in the Senate for 10 years, said on April 21 that he was resigning to spare his wife and three teenage children further exposure from the scandal that consumed his once-promising political career.
Ensign revealed on June 16, 2009, that he had an affair, an admission that grew into a web of corruption allegations that led to his downfall.
The Ethics Committee's actions included the release of a 68-page report written by special counsel Carol Elder Bruce that contained new details of the senator's extramarital relationship in 2007-08 with Cindy Hampton, his wife's best friend and part-time treasurer of his political organizations.
The report also delved into Ensign's efforts, once the affair was discovered, to smooth it over with her husband, Doug Hampton, a friend Ensign had brought to Washington, D.C., to be his administrative assistant, a top staff job.
After Hampton left his Senate job, Ensign's efforts to help him led to Hampton's indictment in March on charges of violating a federal lobbying law.
Cindy Hampton has not spoken publicly about the matter. Told mostly from what she related to investigators, the report painted Ensign as the aggressor who initiated the affair in November 2007 and who relentlessly pursued her even after her husband and his wife discovered the affair and his Senate colleagues, a spiritual adviser and his father, Mike Ensign, tried to get him to stop.
"If he would have just left me alone, it would have ended back in December," Cindy Hampton told Senate investigators, according to the report.
Ensign gave her $3,000 in cash to buy things for herself and to pay for Las Vegas hotel rooms, reserving them in her name to avoid detection, she said. She described herself as despondent while the senator acted like a man in love, planning their future together.
"Senator Ensign told Ms. Hampton on more than one occasion that he wanted to marry her," including at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, the report said.
Doug Hampton discovered the affair while spotting a text message from Ensign to his wife on Dec. 23, 2007. Despite Ensign promising it would end, it did not.
The entanglement that combined elements of sex, power and betrayal generated headlines when it was first disclosed but grew to involve allegations that Ensign abused his office while trying to work himself out of a personal jam.
When the strained relationships among Ensign and the Hamptons became too much to bear by February 2008, the committee said Ensign terminated Hampton but agreed to arrange new work as a consultant for him. Cindy Hampton was let go a month later, in a phone call from Ensign's wife.
Ensign "used his office and staff to intimidate and cajole constituents into hiring Mr. Hampton," the committee said.
That was even though Hampton had no policy experience nor value as a lobbyist other than his connection to the senator, the panel said.
When Las Vegas developer Paul Steelman declined one such advance, Ensign instructed Chief of Staff John Lopez to call Sig Rogich, a well-known Nevada business figure who had advised Steelman, and "jack him up to high heaven and tell him that he is cut off from the office."
Executives at two other companies, P2SA and Biodiesel of Las Vegas, reported similar interactions with Ensign staffer Brooke Allmon. Two companies that Ensign called on Hampton's behalf, Allegiant airlines and NV Energy, hired him.
Federal law prohibits senior Senate staff from lobbying the Senate for a year after they leave their Capitol Hill jobs. But the Ethics Committee said Ensign "communicated with Mr. Hampton and took action on behalf of his clients."
Hampton was indicted in March on charges of violating the lobbying law. He has pleaded innocent.
The Hamptons lost their Las Vegas home to foreclosure in the past year and moved to California. Cindy Hampton told the Senate she has filed for divorce, recently filed bankruptcy and is leaving California to work for a Christian organization.
"This Ensign case was a sad chapter for the Senate, but a far sadder chapter for those whose lives were affected and destroyed by his actions," Boxer said.
The Hamptons could not be reached for comment. Dan Albregts, a Las Vegas attorney who has represented the couple, said he had not read the report and would not comment.
Ensign did not comment on Thursday, and he has declined to speak with reporters since he announced his resignation April 21.
ENSIGN CHALLENGES FINDINGS
Attorneys for Ensign submitted a 12-page document to the Ethics Committee on Wednesday challenging the findings, which they said was being done even as Ensign "deeply and sincerely regrets the personal failures ... that led the committee to conduct its investigation."
Ensign attorney Robert Walker said Thursday the former senator was "confused and disappointed" the committee did not consider his submission before taking action.
"Given his resignation and announcement that he was not running for re-election, there does not seem to be any real reason for a rush to create a report that did not fully consider our submission and which did not allow us to follow up on any remaining issues," Walker said.
Walker said that while Ensign has apologized for his actions, "this is not the same as agreeing that he did or intended to violate any laws or rules, and this submission demonstrates that there is a lot more to the issues than the committee's report indicates."
Paul Coggins, an attorney representing Ensign in the criminal elements of the case, said: "I am confident that the Department of Justice will conclude that Senator Ensign fully complied with the law."
The Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice separately late last year declined to pursue charges against Ensign after conducting investigations.
Officials at the agencies did not comment on Thursday, and attorneys have said there is nothing preventing the cases from being reopened.
Senate investigators conducted 72 witness interviews and depositions including many members of Ensign's staff and reviewed more than a half-million documents, the committee said.
In the course of the investigation, the committee persuaded the Justice Department to grant prosecution immunity to Lopez, Ensign's chief of staff, who emerged as a major figure in the investigation. Efforts to obtain immunity for Hampton failed.
The Ethics Committee and the Justice Department conducted parallel investigations into the issues growing from the affair, including a $96,000 check Ensign arranged for his parents to give the Hamptons as they were leaving his employ in April 2008.
The committee concluded Ensign "made false or misleading statements" in denying the payment was unreported severance for the couple, which could have exposed Ensign to charges of violating federal campaign law.
In fact, the committee said, it found multiple instances in which Ensign himself referred to it as severance.
Ensign denied wrongdoing throughout the past two years, while his standing withered among Senate colleagues and associates in Nevada.
The former senator maintained his side would be fully told once he was cleared through the investigations. But Boxer said the committee found "substantial credible evidence" that the allegations were founded, and more.
Boxer recalled that when Ensign resigned, he said, "I have not violated any law, any rule or standard of conduct."
She said, "I want to go on record as chairman of the Ethics Committee to say how strongly I disagree with that statement."
Review-Journal reporters Laura Myers and Jeff German and Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Peter Urban contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.