Reid: Senate ethics panel obligated to issue Ensign findings

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Harry Reid said Wednesday the Senate Ethics Committee is "obligated" to issue the findings of its investigation of fellow Nevada Sen. John Ensign and to refer potential criminal violations to the Department of Justice.

Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada, was traveling in China last week when Ensign announced he was resigning his Senate seat. The two-term Republican cited the accumulated pressures of investigations conducted by the Justice Department and the Senate into controversies stemming from the extramarital affair he admitted two years ago.

Ensign's resignation, which becomes effective May 3, removes him from the jurisdiction of the Senate. His final day reportedly is one day before he was scheduled to undergo formal questioning from ethics committee investigators.

But the departure of Ensign, 53, may not close the books on the Senate's 22-month investigation. Sources have said the committee still may move forward to issue a report detailing its findings even after he is gone.

Ethics investigators were looking into several allegations growing from Ensign's eight-month affair in 2007-2008 with Cindy Hampton, his wife's best friend and the wife of Doug Hampton, who was a close Ensign friend and a top aide on his staff.

Reid, who was chairman of the Senate ethics committee from 2001 to 2003, said the panel is "obligated" to issue a report.

"I would think once his resignation becomes effective (committee leaders) would just turn it over to their counsel to draw up a report on what they came up with up to this time," Reid told reporters on a telephone call. "I think they are obligated, as I understand it, to come up with a report and once they come up with a report they are also required by law if there are any criminal violations that they see, they are obligated to refer that. It is not a matter of discretion, they are obligated as a matter of law to refer that to the Justice Department."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the ethics committee chairman, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the vice chairman, traveled with Reid in China.

"I did not talk to them about this, purposely," Reid said, citing the committee's rules on confidentiality. "They are very closed-mouthed about what they are going to do, and what they can do."

Investigators were preparing to question Ensign about a $96,000 check his parents gave to the Hamptons in April 2008, shortly before Cindy left her post as treasurer of his campaign arm, and as Doug left his job as administrative assistant.

Ensign's attorneys have called the check a gift consistent with other favors the Ensigns did for the Hamptons during their friendship. Doug Hampton described the payment as unreported severance, while ethics groups have described it as hush money.

Investigators also were investigating Ensign's role in finding work for Doug Hampton as a lobbyist as he left the senator's employ, and whether the senator made his staff available to Hampton and his clients in possible violation of a federal lobbying law.

Hampton was indicted on charges related to his lobbying, to which he has pleaded innocent. The Justice Department did not bring a charge against Ensign.

Ensign has insisted he committed no crimes and violated no Senate rules.