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November 13, 2019

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Watchdog group hounds government for files on Ensign case

Best Of Steve Marcus 2011

Steve Marcus

U.S. Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) announces he will not seek another term in 2012 during a news conference at the Lloyd George Federal Building March 7, 2011. Ensign’s wife Darlene stands by him at left.

WASHINGTON — Now that books are closed on Doug Hampton, the top aide to John Ensign who got mixed up in covering up the former senator’s affair with his wife, one of Washington’s foremost watchdog groups is trying to force the Justice Department to open up its books on Ensign himself.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a formal complaint this week to force the DOJ to turn over files collected during its now-defunct investigation of Ensign.

But the move is not aimed at bringing Ensign to justice so much as it is intended to bring President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice to a moment of reckoning.

“The public integrity section [of the DOJ] is weak and incompetent,” said CREW’s Executive Director Melanie Sloan, ticking off a list of DOJ cases that group has sought files for in addition to Ensign: Don Young, Jerry Lewis, John Murtha, Tom Delay. All had been the subject of long-term criminal inquiries at the DOJ, and all had their cases dropped by the Justice Department in the past three years. “There’s no reason that Justice couldn’t prosecute in those cases,” she said.

“We know they won’t pick up the [Ensign] case again … But if we can get the documents showing there was a criminal case and they didn’t bring it, Americans can ask what the hell the Justice Department is doing not prosecuting,” Sloan continued. “We have a right to demand more from the Justice Department … They’ve been horrible. They were better under Bush at public integrity.”

The DOJ began looking into allegations of ethical and criminal impropriety — namely, that Ensign broke campaign finance laws by funneling money to the Hamptons to keep quiet, and broke congressional rules by procuring Hampton a job in which he’d be illegally lobbying the Senate — after news of Ensign’s affair broke.

But Justice dropped its investigation before Ensign voluntarily resigned the Senate, just hours before he was due to be deposed under oath by the Senate Committee on Ethics, which was also investigating the case.

After delivering a scathing report about Ensign’s conduct, that committee recommended in May 2011 that the Justice Department reopen its investigation of Ensign. It never did.

CREW had previously filed a Freedom of Information Act request for any and all documents related to Ensign’s case from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the DOJ’s Criminal Division, and the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys.

According to this week’s complaint, filed Monday, “all three DOJ components have refused to provide any documents, claiming Sen. Ensign’s privacy interests provide categorical protection from disclosing any documents in DOJ’s files.”

The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for response to CREW’s allegations submitted late Wednesday afternoon.

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