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Ensign defends group facing allegations

U.S. Sen. John Ensign is standing by a secretive group of power brokers despite allegations it took money from financiers of global terrorism.

On Monday, Ensign, R-Nev., defended the organization behind the National Prayer Breakfast from calls to strip it of its tax-exempt status.

ClergyVoice, an activist group of Ohio ministers, has called for the IRS to investigate the Fellowship Foundation, saying in 2004 it took money from the Islamic American Relief Agency. In the same year, the Senate Finance Committee included the agency on a list of terrorist financiers.

“I don’t know anything about where they get their money,” Ensign said Monday after speaking with students in a government class at West Preparatory High School in Las Vegas. “I know some of the people associated with it, and they are some of the finest people I ever met.

“I’d defend them no matter what.”

The Virgina-based Fellowship Foundation, also known as The Family, owns a Washington, D.C., home where Ensign and other conservative Christian lawmakers rented rooms.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who is closely associated with the group, was among Ensign’s confidantes after it became known he was having an affair with Cindy Hampton, wife of former Ensign top aide Doug Hampton.

In addition to facilitating networking among American politicians, The Family engages in global outreach that sometimes includes contact with controversial leaders on hot-button issues.

In 2004 Ensign went on such a trip to Japan. That trip and others came to light more recently in work by author Jeff Sharlet, who has reported extensively on The Family, in a book and in articles on Salon.com and in Mother Jones magazine.

The foundation acknowledged receiving the money, but said it was not used to finance foreign trips and that the group is now vetting donors more closely.

When asked Monday about the allegation of funding by the terrorist agency — which was reported Oct. 13 in the Washington Post — he took a shot at Sharlet.

” I know one of the people who has written a lot of those things and most of the stuff he says is untrue,” Ensign said. “So that doesn’t give them a lot of credibility.”

Ensign remains under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Senate Ethics Committee for allegations stemming from the affair scandal.

Authorities are investigating whether or not Ensign used his influence in an attempt to appease Hampton by lining up lobbying work for the former staffer, who lost his job in the senator’s office when the affair came to light.

The scandal appears to have all but dried up Ensign’s financial support. The political damage has led Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., to hint they might challenge Ensign in 2012.

Ensign said Monday he intends to step up his fundraising and political activity soon, after spending more than $550,000 in the last three months on legal fees.

“We’ll start much more aggressively toward the end of this year,” he said. “The beginning of next year we’ll be very aggressive with fundraising.”

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