LAS VEGAS -- The public might get more insight into why the Department of Justice decided not to pursue charges against former Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who resigned from Congress amid an ethics probe involving his affair with a former campaign staffer and questions about whether he violated federal law in trying to hide the affair.
U.S. District Judge John Bates on Friday ordered the department to describe documents it is withholding in the case and explain why they shouldn't be made public. The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The Justice Department had refused to release the records, citing privacy reasons.
The judge ruled the public's interest in how the government handled the investigation and how it decided not to charge Ensign outweighed any privacy concerns, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported Tuesday (http://bit.ly/14WMWv7).
Bates gave the Department of Justice 60 days to produce an affidavit describing in detail each document and justifying why the records should be withheld.
"The public has a clear interest in knowing why `the government agency responsible for investigating and, if warranted, prosecuting (members of Congress) for alleged illegal conduct' decided not to prosecute a senator for alleged violations of criminal law," Bates wrote in the ruling.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the affidavit should provide further openings for pressure to release information on the case.
"Ultimately this means there will be documents that will be released," Sloan told the newspaper. In the meantime, she said, the document index will provide clues as to what evidence investigators gathered in the course of the probe.
Ensign resigned from the Senate in May 2011 as the Senate Ethics Committee was finalizing a report that said there was evidence the Nevadan had broken laws. His alleged illegal actions stemmed from an eight-month extramarital affair with his campaign treasurer Cynthia Hampton, and from his effort to set up her husband, Doug, who also was Ensign's top aide, as a lobbyist.
In November 2010, after a yearlong investigation, the Justice Department notified Ensign's attorneys it would not pursue criminal charges against him. Questions as to why the senator was not prosecuted escalated when federal prosecutors brought charges against Doug Hampton on alleged violations of lobbying law.
Hampton originally was charged with seven felony counts of violating a one-year ban on former staffers lobbying the Senate. In a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced in September 2012 to a year's probation.
Ensign, who served 10 years as a senator, returned to Las Vegas and is a practicing veterinarian.
"Stay tuned. We are going to find out a lot more about the Ensign case," Sloan said. "The documents hopefully will provide some insight as to what records the Justice Department had and perhaps why they did not prosecute him when they chose to prosecute Doug Hampton."
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com