WASHINGTON -- Doug Hampton, who in his rage implicated himself in wrongdoing in an effort to bring down Sen. John Ensign for having an affair with his wife, was indicted Thursday on charges of violating a federal conflict of interest law.
Hampton, a Las Vegas golfing chum who came to Washington in 2007 to serve as the Nevada Republican's top administrative assistant, was charged with seven counts of violating a law that forbids senior Senate staffers from lobbying the Senate for a year after they leave their Capitol Hill jobs.
The indictment is another big blow to Hampton, who learned late in 2007 that his wife, Cindy, a close friend of Ensign's wife since high school, was having an affair with the senator, who also had given her a job as treasurer of his political operations.
The discovery led to a series of actions by Ensign to cover up and smooth over the scandal, including calling Las Vegas business supporters and setting up Hampton as a lobbyist and seeing his wealthy parents give $96,000 to the Hampton family.
Ensign has not been charged, but his political career imploded when all was made public in summer and fall 2009. He announced this month he would not run for re-election when his term in office expires next year.
The cost also has been high for the Hamptons -- and could get much higher. The family, who lost their Las Vegas home to foreclosure, has moved to California, their attorney Dan Albregts has said. Albregts declined to comment on Thursday.
Hampton, 48, has been summoned to appear for his arraignment on March 31 in U.S. District Court in Washington. The maximum penalty for each count is five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 per count.
Hampton's career as a lobbyist faltered. After unsuccessfully seeking money from Ensign, he approached the FoxNews channel with his story, but Ensign was tipped and hurriedly called a Las Vegas news conference on June 16, 2009, to disclose the affair.
In the weeks that followed, Hampton crusaded against Ensign in television interviews and by cooperating with the New York Times in a blockbuster story that October.
He portrayed himself as a victim, betrayed by his boss and former close friend. After finding him work as a lobbyist in spring 2008, Hampton said, Ensign made his aides available to him as a way to cushion the family's finances after he left his staff job several months after discovering the affair.
Hampton said that both he and Ensign were fully aware of the lobbying rules and that they decided to work around them.
But emails and other documents that were provided to news outlets in Hampton's effort to make a case against Ensign ironically might be used as evidence against him. And Ensign, who was investigated but whose lawyers said is no longer a target of federal prosecutors, probably would be called to testify at Hampton's trial. Ensign remains under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee in the case.
The Justice Department had signaled in recent months that its investigation extended beyond Ensign. But Hampton's indictment still was a startling development.
The executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that filed ethics and legal complaints against Ensign, criticized the Justice Department for pursuing Hampton while Ensign walks.
CREW's Melanie Sloan said Ensign was implicated in the case through evidence that was made public by Hampton as the scandal festered. Ensign denies breaking any laws or Senate rules in the matter. He did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
"It is an outrage that the Justice Department would choose to only prosecute Doug Hampton and not his well-documented co-conspirator Senator John Ensign," Sloan said. "The DOJ has wiped away any doubt that you really can get away with almost anything as long as you happen to be a high-ranking government official."
The Justice Department is charging that Hampton's lobbying work violated the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, a 2007 law enacted to slow the "revolving door" for top aides who leave Capitol Hill to cash in as lobbyists.
According to the indictment, Hampton left Ensign's office on May 1, 2008, and began work as a government affairs consultant. His clients were not identified by name in the indictment, but they were confirmed as Allegiant Air and NV Energy, both based in Las Vegas. Hampton no longer is a lobbyist.
NV Energy issued a brief statement through spokesman Rob Stillwell. "As we stated previously, we will cooperate with any requests for information from the government," Stillwell said. "It would not be appropriate for the company to comment further at this time."
Allegiant Air spokeswoman Tyri Squyres said the company does not want to comment on Hampton's indictment.
"It's a pending investigation," Squyres said. "It's not appropriate for us to make a comment."
The indictment alleged Hampton on behalf of the airline twice in May 2008 sought help from Ensign through a legislative aide via email to get the Department of Transportation to reconsider a fuel surcharge issue.
The indictment further alleged Hampton emailed Ensign's chief of staff three times in July 2008, seeking the senator's help to delay a Transportation Department penalty against the airline on allegations it was charging certain "convenience fees" on its website.
Though not identified by name in the indictment, Ensign's chief of staff at the time was John Lopez, who quit Ensign's office in September 2009 and is now a lobbyist with R&R Partners. He declined to comment on Thursday.
Also, on Jan. 22, 2009, Hampton was alleged to have sent an email to Lopez seeking help scheduling a meeting between Allegiant executives and new Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Further, the indictment alleged that Hampton on behalf of the power company sought Ensign's assistance via a Dec. 12, 2008, email to Lopez to persuade the Department of Interior to speed completion of an environmental study that would allow the utility to move forward on a coal-fired power plant in Ely.
Each of the seven communications translated into a count in the indictment.