I have a new story out this morning for Reuters about the John Ensign case. In the excerpt below, I highlighted some of the new disclosures in the story. Here is the story lede:
(Reuters) – It was one of the most high-profile investigations of a senator in years: John Ensign of Nevada had conducted an affair with his campaign treasurer, Cynthia Hampton, the wife of his closest friend and chief of staff. His family later paid $96,000 to the couple, and suspicions arose that the payment amounted to hush money in the form of an illegal campaign contribution.
Ensign’s once promising political career was over because of the disclosures, but he was no longer in any legal jeopardy.
The Justice Department had informed him in December 2010 that he would not face criminal charges. An aggressive Senate Ethics Committee investigation was still pursuing Ensign, but that probe would be shelved once he resigned.
As Ensign was preparing to leave the Senate, investigators for the Senate Ethics Committee were attempting at the 11th hour to obtain a trove of email correspondence concerning the payments to the Hamptons. The trouble for the committee was that Ensign’s attorneys insisted the emails were privileged.
The committee had unsuccessfully battled for 18 months to obtain them.
A Reuters examination of the Ensign probe shows the case then took a sudden turn: Ensign reversed course and handed over more than 1,000 sensitive emails between himself and his attorneys and other top advisers. The decision “puzzled” congressional investigators who thought they would never see the emails and baffled even most of his own closest advisers, say people close to the case.
That decision would also reverse Ensign’s legal fate: even after he resigned on May 3, the Senate Ethics Committee continued its probe and concluded he violated federal criminal laws and should have been expelled from the Senate.
The Justice Department, which had cleared Ensign, is now almost certain to reopen its criminal investigation, attorneys close to the case told Reuters.
The unexpected last minute developments in the Ensign case raise serious questions as to why the Justice Department closed its file on the Senator without first obtaining the crucial emails later seen by the Senate.
A senior Justice Department official told Reuters that the decision to publicly say that they were no longer pursuing Ensign displayed bad judgment, harmed the investigation, and will likely leave lingering effects on the Department’s reputation in prosecuting public officials.
The rest of the story can be found here. The news broken in the story is this:
1) The Department of Justice closed its file on Ensign last year and told him they were no longer pursuing a criminal prosecution of him despite never seeing 1,000 possibly incriminating emails between him and his attorneys and staff.
Reuters obtained some of the emails, which we quote in the story.
2) The Justice Department of Ensign is likely to now be reopened, according to people close to the investigation.
3) Ensign himself could have avoided a recommendation by the Senate Ethics Committee that he face expulsion from the Senate, and a reopening of the criminal probe by the Justice Department, only if he had simply resigned from the Senate earlier than he had and never turned over his emails to the Senate.
John Cook has some more detail and commentary on that aspect of the story.
Some discursiveness: Three years ago, we wrote about Ensign for the Atlantic, when he played a key behind the scenes role in working to have one of the nine U.S. attorneys fired by the Bush administration, Dan Bogden, to be reappointed by President Obama to his old job. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Nevada did not handle the investigation of Ensign– in part perhaps for that reason– instead leaving it to DOJ’s Public Integrity section to conduct the probe. I also wrote a long, original blog post/column for this blog when Bogden was reappointed by Obama.
Murray Waas, “Obama, Politicians Decline to Return Campaign Contributions,” Reuters, Feb. 13, 2012.
Nick Carey and Murray Waas, “Virginia Veteran Report Shows High Depression Rate,” Reuters, Sept. 27, 2010.
Murray Waas (with editing by Jim Impoco), “Wellpoint Routinely Treats Breast Cancer Patients,” Reuters, April 24, 2010.