The indictment is bad news for Ensign who announced he would not seek re-election last month. Ensign has been accused of knowingly violating the one-year lobbying ban by helping Hampton set up a short-lived career on K Street. Ensign was having an affair with Doug's wife Cynthia and allegedly assisted Doug Hampton with lobbying prospects as a way of keeping the affair under wraps.
The Senate Ethics Committee last month appointed a special prosecutor to look into alleged hush money payments Ensign's parents made to Cynthia and Doug Hampton and the accusations of violating the one-year lobbying ban. In December Ensign said the Justice Department had told him he was no longer a target in the Justice Department probe, but shortly after the Ethics Committee's announcement last month, Ensign said he would retire instead of seeking re-election.
Both Cynthia and Doug worked for Ensign, and Doug Hampton was a senior aide. Ensign's parents paid the Hamptons $96,000 once they left the senator's employment. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Ethics panel, charging Ensign with paying the money to keep the Hamptons quiet about the affair. The Federal Election Commission said the payments did not violate campaign-finance law because they were paid in installments to the Hamptons and their children in amounts allowed under U.S. tax law.
The Justice Department indictment alleges that Doug Hampton left Ensign's office on May 1, 2008, and became a government affairs consultant for an airline company and an energy company, both headquartered in Las Vegas.
It accuses Hampton of seeking, on behalf of the energy company, assistance from Ensign and staff members to convince the Department of Interior to expedite release of an environmental impact statement that would allow the energy company to move forward on its delayed proposal to build a coal-fired power plant in eastern Nevada.
The maximum penalty for each of the seven counts alleged in the indictment is five years in prison. Doug Hampton also faces a maximum fine of $250,000 per count.
If the Justice Department chooses not to find Ensign culpable, it would be an outrage, said Melanie Sloan, executive director for CREW.
"It is an outrage that the Justice Department would choose to only prosecute Doug Hampton and not his well-documented co-conspirator Senator John Ensign," Sloan said in a statement. "...The message from the DOJ is clear: if you work for the government, and you know your boss is engaged in wrongdoing, keep your mouth shut."
Sloan said Ensign should be expelled from the Senate for his alleged role in the cover-up and called on the Senate Ethics Committee to continue its investigation and "show the courage that the Department of Justice so clearly lacks."
Doug Hampton told The New York Times in 2009 that Ensign helped him land contracts with NV Energy, the largest power company in Nevada, and Allegiant Air, a Las Vegas-based discount airline. At the time, Hampton said he had lobbied Ensign staff on both companies' legislative agendas.
A federal grand jury subpoenaed the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) in March. Ensign served as NRSC chairman during 2008 election cycle, during the time of the alleged illegal lobbying activity.
The NRSC subpoena followed a flurry of Justice Department subpoenas sent to six local Nevada businesses that had dealings with Ensign and his staff dating back to 2008.
The Nevada subpoenas sought "any and all records; including e-mails, phone calls and calendars."
They also sought documents relating to Ensign; former Ensign Chief of Staff John Lopez; the Hamptons; and political consultants Michael Slanker and his wife, Lindsey.
Lopez told The New York Times last year that he had raised concerns when Hampton tried to lobby him. Instead of prohibiting any future contact from Hampton, Lopez said he was told that it was his responsibility to make sure any lobbying done complied with the law.
In depositions to the Senate Ethics Committee last summer, staffers for Sen. John Ensign have said the Nevada Republican and his senior aides knew a one-year lobbying ban was being broken when they helped a former staffer set up a short-lived career on K Street, The Hill reported last year citing two sources close to the investigation.
The staffers told Senate Ethics investigators that several aides in the office openly discussed Doug Hampton's lobbying job and the one-year revolving-door ban it appeared to violate, the sources said.
At least one Ensign aide told the panel that Ensign and Hampton were so bold about the lobbying job that the pair ate lunch together at least once in the Senate dining room, the sources said.