By ERIC LIPTON…..Senator John Ensign’s resignation letter allows him to leave office just one day before he was to have to answer questions under oath about whether a $96,000 payment to the family of his former lover was illegal and designed to keep the affair from becoming public, according to people familiar with an investigation of Mr. Ensign’s activities.
That formal testimony, scheduled for May 4, was the final step as Senate investigators prepared for what were almost certain to be Senate ethics charges against Mr. Ensign, Republican of Nevada. Mr. Ensign’s resignation is effective May 3.
In the letter, issued late Thursday, Mr. Ensign acknowledged he was stepping down to avoid further scrutiny — hoping that his departure from the Senate would mean the end of any further questions about his affair with Cynthia Hampton, the wife of his former senior aide, Douglas Hampton.
But in interviews Friday, officials said the two leaders of the Ethics Committee — both the top Democrat and the top Republican — had decided not to let the investigation disappear. They are likely to take the unusual step of issuing a statement that details evidence of wrongdoing uncovered in the committee’s 22-month investigation, its largest in more than a decade. Those details could include interviews with dozens of witnesses and a review of records of Mr. Ensign and his family.
The investigators were focused in particular on the assertion by Mr. Ensign that the $96,000 payment made in April 2008 by Mr. Ensign’s parents was a gift to help longtime family friends and had nothing to do with any effort to keep Douglas and Cynthia Hampton from disclosing an affair that might wreck a political career.
Mr. Hampton, in an interview in 2009 with The New York Times, said that this was in fact a severance payment, made as part of an elaborate plan with Mr. Ensign to find Mr. Hampton work as a lobbyist so that he could maintain his wages after he left his Senate job. Mr. Hampton had been one of the senator’s closest friends and most influential aides until he learned that his wife was having an affair with Mr. Ensign.
Any charges against Mr. Ensign that the Ethics Committee might have made probably would have revolved around the payment.
If it in fact was a severance payment, it could represent an illegal campaign contribution by Mr. Ensign’s parents because Cynthia Hampton had served as the treasurer of his political campaign. A severance payment to her should have been recorded as a political expenditure.
The senator and his mother, Sharon Ensign, both provided sworn statements to investigators from the Federal Election Commission when it investigated the payment, asserting that it was in fact a gift to the Hamptons, who before the affair were close family friends.
Robert L. Walker, a defense lawyer representing Mr. Ensign, declined Friday to address questions about the matter.
The Ethics Committee also has been investigating if Mr. Ensign conspired to help Mr. Hampton, after leaving his office, violate a one-year lobbying ban by contacting Mr. Ensign’s staff to assist two Nevada companies that Mr. Ensign had helped him get work with. Mr. Hampton has said this was part of their mutual plan to transition him out of his Capitol Hill job.