Ensign seeks defense donations, blames 'liberal organization' for legal woes

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Ensign is asking supporters for donations to pay lawyers defending him in ongoing ethics investigations, insisting he is "absolutely" innocent of allegations stemming from an extramarital affair and efforts to help the woman's husband find new work.

"As difficult as it is for me to ask you, I need your help to refute these charges and wage a successful legal defense," the Nevada Republican wrote in a fundraising letter his office said was sent out late last week.

In seeking contributions of up to $10,000 to a defense fund, Ensign blamed a "liberal organization" for his legal woes after it filed an ethics complaint against him. The executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington disputed the description, saying the group was an equal opportunity watchdog.

Ensign created a legal defense fund in May and registered it with the Senate. The fundraising letter was his first publicized effort to stock it.

In the letter, Ensign said he has run up "considerable legal fees. I have paid those fees personally up to this point."

The Senate Ethics Committee and the Justice Department are running concurrent investigations into Ensign's relationships with Doug and Cindy Hampton, a Las Vegas couple who were family friends and worked for him until May 2008.

Doug Hampton was Ensign's administrative assistant, a top post in his Washington office, while Cindy Hampton was a paid treasurer on Ensign's two political fundraising committees.

Ensign acknowledged in June 2009 he had an affair with Cindy Hampton over nine months in 2007 and 2008, and later said his parents gave the Hamptons $96,000 as a gift around the time they left his employ.

Investigators reportedly are looking into the circumstances of the check. They also are determining whether Ensign may have violated federal law in helping Doug Hampton obtain lobbying clients as a way to smooth his departure, and whether he directed his staff to help Hampton and his new bosses. A statute forbids senior aides from lobbying the Senate for a year after they leave.

Ensign has said he helped Doug Hampton get a job but has denied doing anything illegal or improper in the process. The senator also maintains he has repaired his relationship with his wife and family, and is attempting to do the same with Nevada constituents.

"I have taken responsibility for my actions and worked hard to become a better husband, father, friend and senator, but I have been accused of doing things I absolutely did not do," Ensign said in his letter.

The Senate Ethics Committee and the Justice Department have declined to confirm or discuss the case. Some of Ensign's former aides and associates in Nevada received subpoenas earlier this year, and the Senate panel sent investigators to Las Vegas in May to question witnesses.

Last month, the Senate passed a resolution that would allow Senate aides to testify before a grand jury looking into the Ensign matter.

Ensign has hired attorneys from three firms to handle the case, and has spent more than several hundred thousand dollars so far. He also is paying attorneys for several members of his staff who have been questioned.

Ensign's office made the fundraising letter available on request. Ensign was on vacation and unavailable for comment this week and his office said he had no further comment on it. Spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper said the letter was sent late last week, but could not say how widely it was distributed.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also known as CREW, filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee shortly after Ensign acknowledged the extramarital relationship.

CREW also called on the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission to investigate the allegations, some of which were leveled by Doug Hampton and detailed in news articles in the months after Ensign admitted the affair.

In seeking to paint CREW as "liberal," Ensign allies argue the group's executive director, Melanie Sloan, previously worked as a counsel on the House and Senate judiciary committees for Democrats John Conyers of Michigan, Charles Schumer of New York and Joe Biden of Delaware.

CREW has received financial support from a group of wealthy Democratic donors called the Democracy Alliance, according to The Washington Post. Roll Call reported in 2008 that CREW received $75,000 in 2006 from the Service Employees International Union, and also money from the Arca Foundation, a family foundation that has backed liberal causes.

Sloan said CREW is nonpartisan, and has pressed for ethics investigations into Democrats such as Reps. Charles Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California as well as Republicans.

Sloan said Ensign was in trouble whether or not CREW filed its complaint.

"The case against Senator Ensign has nothing to do with the fact that he's a Republican, and everything to do with the fact that he's corrupt," Sloan said in a statement on Friday. "Much like CREW has called for Congressman Charles Rangel to step down it's time for Senator Ensign to look in the mirror, stop blaming other people, finally take responsibly for his actions, and resign."

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.