- Associated Press - Thursday, May 12, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Sen. John Ensign made false statements to the Federal Election Commission and obstructed a Senate Ethics Committee’s investigation into his conduct, the panel said Thursday in a scathing report that sent the matter to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation.

Mr. Ensign, Nevada Republican, resigned his seat May 3 rather than face continued scrutiny and possible public hearings about his affair with the wife of one of his top Senate aides, a payment to the aide’s family, and the aide’s lobbying after leaving Senate employment.

The committee also asked the FEC to investigate possible campaign finance law violations.

“When Sen. Ensign resigned, he said, and I quote, ‘I have not violated any law, rule or standard of conduct,’” Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat and committee chairwoman, told the Senate. “I want to go on record … to say how strongly I disagree with that statement.”

The committee has been investigating Mr. Ensign for 22 months. The Senate cannot punish a member no longer serving, but the referrals ensure that investigation of Mr. Ensign will go on for some time.

Mr. Ensign has acknowledged an affair with Cynthia Hampton, a former campaign treasurer. She’s the wife of Douglas Hampton, who was Mr. Ensign‘s co-chief of staff.

The investigation has focused on at least two developments that followed disclosure of the affair.

Mr. Ensign‘s parents paid the Hampton family $96,000, raising the question of whether the money was an illegal contribution to the senator’s campaign. Mr. Hampton said the money was a severance payment.

Another focus was Mr. Ensign’s connection to Mr. Hampton’s work as a lobbyist for two Nevada firms after he left Mr. Ensign‘s staff. Federal law prohibits a senior Senate aide from lobbying the Senate for one year after ending employment.

The committee said evidence showed that Mr. Ensign:

• Aided and abetted violations of a one-year ban on former employees lobbying the Senate.

• Conspired to violate that restriction.

• Made false statements to the FEC.

• Violated campaign finance laws.

• Obstructed the ethics committee’s preliminary inquiry.

Mr. Hampton has been indicted on charges of lobbying Mr. Ensign and his staff in violation of that restriction. He pleaded not guilty.

The Hampton indictment said that while lobbying for Allegiant Air, a low-cost carrier in Las Vegas, the former Ensign aide sought the assistance of the senator and a legislative aide to Mr. Ensign. Mr. Hampton wanted help in persuading the Transportation Department to reconsider its position on a fuel surcharge pricing issue, the indictment said.

Mr. Hampton allegedly sought the aid of Mr. Ensign and his staff to help schedule a March 2009 meeting involving the secretary of transportation and executives from the airline company.

The indictment said that, on behalf of NV Energy, the largest electricity provider in Nevada, Mr. Hampton sought assistance from Mr. Ensign and his chief of staff to expedite the release of a U.S. Interior Department environmental impact statement regarding a coal-fired power plant.

The effort was designed to allow the energy company to move forward on its delayed proposal to build the plant, the indictment said.

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