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Ensign’s former aide reaches deal with federal prosecutors

Updated Tuesday, May 15, 2012 | 3:54 p.m.

Former U.S. Sen. John Ensign’s chief aide Doug Hampton appears to have reached a deal with federal prosecutors to settle charges he violated a cooling-off period prohibiting congressional employees from lobbying for at least a year after they leave their jobs.

Hampton is accused of allowing Ensign to help him secure lobbying contracts before he resigned from the senator’s office in 2009 amid the fallout from Ensign’s affair with Hampton’s wife.

Both Ensign and Hampton became subjects of investigation for breaking federal lobbying laws in their efforts to sever ties and cover up the affair.

One year ago, just after Ensign resigned from the Senate, the Senate Ethics Committee excoriated him in an official review. The ethics committee recommended the Justice Department reopen its investigation of Ensign, but Hampton is the only one to have ever seen the inside of a courtroom.

Hampton was indicted last spring. At his last court hearing in January, Hampton’s lawyers laid out a lengthy schedule of motions leading toward a trial expected later this year. One congressional watch dog explained the schedule was an indication Hampton had no interest in cooperating with the Justice Department’s investigation of his former boss.

But the plea hearing announced today and scheduled for June 7 means plans have dramatically changed since then.

Hampton’s lawyer, federal public defender A.J. Kramer, refused to comment on the details of the deal, and whether or not it involves the Justice Department and Ensign, until all signatures are finalized in the coming days. But he indicated that the deal was neither hasty nor tenuous.

“We were working on everybody’s schedule,” Kramer said. “It’s just a logistical thing.”

A spokesman for the Justice Department didn’t not immediately return a request for comment.

If the deal does involve Hampton cooperating with federal investigators to implicate Ensign, it could re-open one of the most contorted sex-and-power scandals in Nevada’s political history.

If it doesn’t, it could involve serious jail time for Hampton. He’s been charged with seven counts of violating federal conflict-of-interest laws. Each carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

But Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it’s likely Hampton’s sentence will be light — involving no jail time — since the Justice Department has an incentive to quickly dispose of the case.

“Part of the decision to make the Hampton case go away is because the Justice Department looks ridiculous for prosecuting Hampton and not Ensign,” Sloan said. “You’d absolutely have an opportunity to continue on because you don’t have to structure a deal to ensure Hampton’s cooperation; everything he’s said or done in the past indicate he’s more than happy to cooperate against John Ensign...there’s just no reason to believe the Justice Department is pursuing a case against him.”

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