The Senate Ethics Committee admonished Republican Sen. Tom Coburn on Friday over his contact with a top aide to former Sen. John Ensign, the Nevada lawmaker who resigned in disgrace last year after lying about his affair with the staffer's wife.
In a letter released Friday, the six-member panel said Coburn's communications with Doug Hampton and his actions on behalf of the former administrative assistant "were improper conduct which reflects on the Senate." The committee said the contact warranted a public letter of qualified admonition. Specifically, the committee said a meeting between the two violated the Senate rule barring contact on legislative matters within the first year of a staffer's departure, commonly known as the "cooling off period."
In issuing the letter, the panel said it considers the matter closed.
Ensign, a Nevada Republican, quit May 3, 2011, one day before he was to have testified under oath to the Senate Ethics committee about his affair with Cynthia Hampton, her husband Doug Hampton's subsequent lobbying of Ensign's office and a payment from Ensign's parents to the one-time aide's family.
In 2008, Hampton received a $96,000 gift from Ensign's parents, and an earlier Ethics Committee report cast Coburn as participating in subsequent, unsuccessful negotiations in May 2009 over a far larger amount. Coburn, R-Okla., has disputed the report.
In its letter, the committee said Coburn had a personal friendship with Doug Hampton and knew that he was no longer a Senate employee. Yet Coburn agreed to a meeting with Hampton less than one year later that involved discussion of legislative issues.
"Your relationship with Mr. Hampton provided you with a basis to have known he was engaging in prohibited post-employment communications when he contacted you and scheduled the March 11, 2009, meeting on behalf of his employer, Allegiant Air," the committee wrote.
In deciding on a qualified admonition, the committee said it took into account the fact that Coburn and Hampton's prohibited contact was limited to one meeting, and that the senator has acknowledged that he was wrong and should have been more careful.
"While the committee did not find that your conduct constituted actionable violations of criminal law, the committee believes that senators are obligated to meet a higher standard," the panel wrote.
Although the panel cited one meeting during Hampton's "cooling off period" of May 2, 2008 to May 1, 2009, it described a close relationship between Coburn and the former staffer.
"You acknowledged that Mr. Hampton was a personal friend whom you counseled and supported after learning of Senator Ensign's affair with his wife, Cindy Hampton. You were made aware of plans to help the Hamptons transition into a new life, and you recommended that Senator Ensign assist Mr. Hampton with recommendations to find another job, as you would `normally give someone who had been your chief of staff,'" the committee said in the letter.
The panel also said Coburn was "intimately involved in trying to help the Ensigns and Hamptons reach a financial settlement that would stave off any public disclosure of, by then, the past affair." This knowledge, the committee said, further bolstered the argument that the Oklahoma lawmaker was aware that the meeting with Hampton had occurred during the cooling off period, and was in violation of the federal criminal law.
In a statement, Coburn's office challenged the Ethics committee criticism.
"Admonishing Dr. Coburn for failing to know Hampton was only seven weeks shy of ending his year-long cooling off period is gratuitous, particularly when Dr. Coburn cooperated fully with the Ethics committee and went out of his way to acknowledge that he could have taken additional steps to learn that Hampton was under the ban _ even though, again, the burden of compliance was on Hampton," said John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn. "It is unfortunate the committee has impugned Dr. Coburn for their failure to provide workable guidance for a law that was passed nearly five years ago."
In its report last year, the panel found that Ensign broke federal law, made false statements to the Federal Election Commission and obstructed a committee's investigation into his conduct. It forwarded the matter to the Justice Department for possible prosecution.
The former Republican lawmaker "created a web of deceit that entangled and compromised numerous people," the committee said. The panel said that it had assembled enough evidence to warrant possible expulsion had Ensign not resigned.