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October 19, 2019

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Justice Department halts John Ensign probe


Associated Press File

Sen. John Ensign’s office announced Wednesday that he is no longer the target of a Department of Justice investigation.

Lawyers for Sen. John Ensign say the Department of Justice has halted its investigation of the Nevada senator, who was accused of improperly paying off employees to cover up an extramarital affair.

"The Department of Justice has informed us that Senator Ensign is no longer a target of its investigation and that it has no plans to bring any charges against him on this matter," lawyers said in statement.

This is the second recent reprieve for Ensign, with the Federal Election Commission deciding last month not to pursue a campaign finance complaint against the senator.

That leaves only the Senate Ethics Committee investigation into Ensign. On Tuesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer, the committee's chair, said she would not comment on progress, but said the investigation "is ongoing."

Ensign has already said he will run for re-election to a third term in 2012.

"It'll be a hard road, either way," he said Tuesday, prior to the news that the DOJ was dropping the complaint.

But a spokeswoman for Ensign said Wednesday that the news indicated that "truth in this matter is finally coming to light."

"He has long stated that he acted in accordance with the law," said spokeswoman Jennifer Cooper. "It is the senator's hope that the Ethics Committee soon follows suit."

Ensign became the subject of two independent ethics investigations, by the Department of Justice and the Senate Ethics Committee, last year after it was revealed that he had allegedly taken steps to steer lobbying work -- and a gift of $96,000 from his parents -- to Douglas Hampton, a former Ensign Senate office staffer and the wife of Cynthia Hampton, with whom Ensign was having an extended affair.

The affair took place between December 2007 and August 2008, while Cynthia Hampton was working for Ensign's campaign operations: Ensign for Senate and the Battleborn PAC, of which Ensign is honorary chair.

Ensign denied any wrongdoing, claiming the monetary gifts -- divided equally among the Hamptons and their children -- fell within legal limits, and that the job recommendations he made for Douglas Hampton were in line with what a boss would do for a former employee.

The revelation of the affair in June 2009 seemed all but guaranteed to decimate Ensign's political career, which some poll watchers were predicting might be geared toward a potential Senate run in 2012. But in the time since, it hadn't seemed likely that Ensign could even hang onto his Senate seat for the rest of his term.

That may all change now -- especially if the Ethics Committee follows the Justice Department's lead and drops charges.

Boxer didn't return an immediate request for comment.

Ensign declared his intention to seek re-election to a third term shortly after the November elections, despite having had to pay legal bills that had drained his election war chest to about $280,000, as reported in FEC filings for the last quarter, ending Sept. 30.

National Republican Senate campaign committee chairs haven't yet been willing to weigh in on Ensign's candidacy in 2012, but haven't been working against it either.

"All I can say is, there's bound to be a primary," Sen. John Cornyn said Tuesday.

But an emboldened Ensign may make it harder for others to stage challenging runs.

While Ensign's legal troubles are not behind him yet, the stakes have already been eased. While the Justice Department can pursue charges that carry fines or jail time, the Senate Ethics Committee by definition is limited in its punitive ability to the confines of the Congress.

If the Committee does indict him, the repercussions could still be serious -- the committee can recommend anything from simple censure to expulsion from the Senate.

But an indictment alone isn't even a political death sentence.

According to Historian of the Senate Donald K. Ritchie, there have been 11 senators who have been indicted, four of whom have been convicted -- though only two of those convictions stuck.

Senators who have been indicted and acquitted have gone on to re-election. Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is one such example.

Neither would Ensign be the first senator who has cheated on his wife to stage a successful re-election campaign. Sen. David Vitter, who was implicated in the D.C. Madam scandal, managed to get a win in Louisiana last month by a margin of 20 points.

But Democrats in state political circles say regardless of what charges do or do not proceed, Ensign is tainted goods for 2012.

“This decision does not change the fact that John Ensign betrayed his own family, lied to his employees and ruined the lives of those he called friends," said a Nevada Democratic source who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the still-pending Senate investigation. "Ensign may have stopped the bleeding for now, but his self-inflicted wounds are still festering and remain far from healed. If anything, this only opens the door to swift punishment by the Senate Ethics Committee."

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