Ethics Committee Refers Ensign Case To Justice Dept.

WASHINGTON—The Senate Ethics Committee on Thursday concluded that former Sen. John Ensign may have violated federal laws and Senate rules in his handling of an affair with a former aide and referred the matter to the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission. The committee has been investigating Ensign (R., Nev.) for almost two years after the former senator admitted having an extramarital relationship with Cindy Hampton, his ex-campaign treasurer and the wife of Doug Hampton, his former aide, both of whom were good friends. Mr. Ensign resigned from the Senate effective May 3, the day before he was to be deposed by the committee.

"In the course of its inquiry, the committee discovered information giving it reason to believe that Sen. Ensign and others violated laws that fall within the Department of Justice's jurisdiction," Ethics Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) and Vice Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) wrote in a letter to the Justice Department.

Earlier this year, Mr. Hampton was indicted by the Justice Department for violating a one-year ban on lobbying. The Senate report found that Mr. Ensign facilitated violation of the ban by "pressuring contributors and constituents to hire Mr. Hampton even though he had no public policy experience or value as a lobbyist other than access to the Senator and his office."

Mr. Ensign also instituted office polices to make Mr. Hampton's contacts with the office "harder to detect, including a shredding policy, discouraging use of official Senate email accounts in favor of Gmail, and directing that all inquiries of the committee go through" the subsequent chief of staff, John Lopez, the report found.

Robert Walker of Wiley Rein LLP and Abbe D. Lowell of Chadbourne & Parke LLP released a lengthy rebuttal to the charges and asserted that Mr. Ensign didn't violate the law or Senate rules. Mr. Ensign acknowledged that he helped his former aide get a lobbying job, but the senator said that he simply made a job recommendation, the lawyers said. He didn't conspire to help Mr. Hampton violate the one-year lobbying ban, the lawyers said. Mr. Ensign also said that he "did not delete any evidence in this matter, nor did he ask or suggest that anyone else do so," the lawyers said.

The Justice Department dropped a criminal probe of Mr. Ensign, his office said earlier this year. It isn't clear whether that probe will be reopened; the Justice Department doesn't bring cases in connection with every referral.