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October 8, 2015

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Former Sen. John Ensign hit with fine over contributions

Updated Friday, May 17, 2013 | 3:23 p.m.

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U.S. Sen. John Ensign announces he will not seek another term in 2012 during a news conference at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas on Monday, March 7, 2011. Ensign's wife, Darlene, stands by him at left. Launch slideshow »
John Ensign

John Ensign

WASHINGTON — The Federal Election Commission announced Friday a $32,000 fine against former U.S. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and his former campaign committee treasurer, Lisa Lisker, for failing to disclose “excessive in-kind contributions” from Ensign’s parents that were allegedly used to cover up an affair that precipitated Ensign’s early exit from office in 2011.

Ensign’s parents, Michael and Sharon Ensign, gave Ensign’s mistress, Cynthia Hampton, and her husband, Douglas Hampton, $96,000 to enable the couple to leave Ensign’s employment after Douglas Hampton learned of his wife’s affair with the Republican senator.

That payment, however, was never disclosed. Michael and Sharon Ensign were also fined $22,000 by the FEC.

Ensign and Lisker agreed to the settlement, which amounts to an official admission that they “knowingly accepted excessive contributions from Michael and Sharon Ensign” and failed to report them, according to an agreement attorneys for the FEC and Ensign signed in April. The documents pertaining to the case were only released Friday afternoon.

The FEC and the Department of Justice launched investigations of Ensign after his affair came to light in 2009.

Ensign was accused of campaign finance violations and improperly using his position as a senator to help Douglas Hampton violate the mandatory one-year lobbying ban on former employees.

Hampton had served as Ensign’s chief of staff and his wife, Cynthia, worked on the senator’s campaign committee.

But Ensign was never fined or otherwise censured for his actions and resigned his Senate seat in early May 2011. That was days before the Senate Ethics Committee released a scathing report excoriating his actions and finding “reason to believe that Ensign violated laws,” including campaign finance laws.

Ensign served as a Nevada senator from 2001 until he stepped down in 2011.

The FEC’s fines are the first legal penalties Ensign has faced for his activities, which made for one of the most shocking scandals in Nevada’s none-too-tame political history.

It is also the first time an entity with the ability to mete out punishments has laid out the facts of Ensign’s case.

The FEC cited Doug Hampton’s handwritten notes and Ensign’s own personal journal as the main sources for concluding the $96,000 Michael and Sharon Ensign paid was “severance” and part of “an arrangement to end the employment relationships” between the Hamptons and Ensign.

The Ensigns had long argued the $96,000 was a personal gift, but the FEC determined that $72,000 of that must be construed as “in-kind” payments to cover Cynthia Hampton’s lost salary and health benefits — the kind of expenditures that must be reported.

The limits on personal contributions when Michael and Sharon Ensign paid the Hamptons $96,000 were $2,300 and $5,000, meaning they exceeded legal contribution limits by $57,400.

It is not clear what influence, if any, the FEC’s decision will have over whether the Justice Department opts to revive an investigation of Ensign.

Though Ensign’s lawyers agreed to pay the FEC’s fine and not to contest its findings, the arrangement of the agreement protects Ensign from having to admit liability with respect to the FEC or any other legal process.

The FEC had launched and then dropped an inquiry into Ensign’s activities prior to his departure from the Senate.

The FEC reopened its investigation in May 2011, after receiving a complaint from the Senate Ethics Committee on the day it released its comprehensive report on Ensign.

Ensign objected to the allegations against him in June 2011, but the case proceeded.

The FEC notified the Senate Ethics Committee of the settlement with Ensign on April 19. The FEC has 30 days before it is required to make such settlements public.

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