WASHINGTON -- The Federal Election Commission has dismissed a complaint alleging that a former campaign aide to Sen. John Ensign was improperly paid $96,000 in April 2008, following the discovery of their extramarital affair and the collapse of a longtime family friendship, according to documents made public Friday.
The allegation was one leg of multiple probes into Ensign's conduct after the disclosure that the Nevada Republican in 2007 and 2008 had a nine-month relationship with Cindy Hampton, a family friend from Las Vegas who served as treasurer of his two political committees. He remains under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee and the Department of Justice over related allegations.
A 13-page ruling that closed the investigation by the campaign finance agency also opened a window into the relationship between the Ensign and Hampton families that ended in acrimony. According to documents, the Ensigns extended $60,000 in loans and almost $40,000 in school tuition to their longtime friends.
Additionally, Cindy Hampton and her husband, Doug, were invited by Ensign's wealthy parents to travel on a private jet and take part in a Hawaii vacation valued at more than $30,000, according to sworn information provided to the FEC.
The unanimous decision signed by five FEC commissioners on Wednesday comes as Ensign, 52, said this week he planned to run for re-election in 2012, even as the investigations are under way.
"The decision made by the Federal Election Commission to close this matter in its entirety gets us one step closer to the truth, which is one step closer to clearing Senator Ensign's name and restoring his reputation," said Chris K. Gober, an Ensign attorney with the firm of Fish & Richardson.
"We feel confident that the Senate Ethics Committee and Justice Department will follow the FEC's lead and put this matter to rest, and it is our hope that they will do so expeditiously," Gober added.
Daniel Albregts, an attorney for the Hamptons, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The accusation filed by an ethics watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, was that a $96,000 check provided by Ensign's parents, Michael and Sharon, to Hampton, her husband and two of their children amounted to an illegal campaign contribution to Ensign, and job severance to Hampton that was required to be reported.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the FEC fell down on the job.
Sloan said the agency ignored evidence that the Hamptons themselves considered the payment to be severance, and the existence of contemporaneous notes kept by Doug Hampton that appeared to discuss severance payments in the context of conversations with Ensign.
"As usual, when confronted with evidence of campaign finance violations, the FEC did exactly nothing," Sloan said.
"Luckily for the American people, this matter remains under investigation by the Department of Justice and the Senate Ethics Committee, so there is still a chance for Sen. Ensign to be held accountable for his outrageous and likely illegal conduct," Sloan said.
The FEC indicated it relied heavily on documents and affidavits submitted by Ensign and his parents to rebut the allegation. The decision suggests the FEC did not obtain statements from the Hamptons. "Testimony from other parties, such as the Hamptons, would be unlikely to shed any light on the subject of the Ensigns' intent," the agency said.
The FEC said it was provided no direct evidence that the Ensigns intended the $96,000 as severance, nor did it anticipate that further investigation would produce such evidence.
The Ensigns maintained the $96,000 payment was made "out of concern for the well being of long-time family friends" as Cindy Hampton prepared to leave her posts, and as her husband, an Ensign confidant, was departing as Ensign's administrative assistant on his Washington staff.
The parents wanted to give $100,000 but limited the gift to $96,000 for tax reasons.
"The sworn affidavits submitted by the Ensigns constitute the only direct evidence of their intent in making the payment," the FEC said.
Ensign's parents swore that neither their son nor anyone else asked them to make the payment nor did anyone suggest it might serve as severance, according to the FEC.
The Ensigns provided information that the Hamptons had been the recipients of other gifts and favors as evidence the $96,000 payment was not out of line with the families' history, the FEC said.
Those included a 2004 no-interest loan of $15,000; a $25,000 loan in 2006 that was not repaid; $15,170 in 2006 for private school tuition for the Hamptons' children; $4,500 for counseling for one of the Hamptons' children; $23,970 in private school tuition in 2007; and a $20,000 loan that was forgiven.
The FEC's decision was signed by five of its commission leaders. Commissioner Steven Walther recused himself from the case. Documents available Friday did not indicate why Walther, who is from Northern Nevada, did not participate.
Review-Journal writer Jeff German contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.