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Senate Ethics Panel Admonishes Tom Coburn Over Contact With Ensign Aide

The Senate Ethics Committee today publicly admonished Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) for having improper contact with an aide to former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) during the one-year period after he left the Senate.

The committee concluded in its “Public Letter of Qualified Admonition” released Friday that because Coburn had a personal relationship with Doug Hampton while he worked in Ensign’s office, he was aware that when Hampton contacted him regarding his new employer, Allegiant Air, it fell within a one-year “cooling off period” during which former Senate staffers are prohibited from lobbying their former employer.

Though Hampton is currently under indictment for improperly contacting Ensign during the same period, the committee said Coburn’s conduct was not a crime but violated the spirit of the Senate’s ethics rules.

“While the Committee did not find that your conduct constituted actionable violations of criminal law, it determined that you did not meet the aforementioned higher standards expected of a U.S. Senator,” the committee wrote.

According to Senate rules, a letter of qualified admonition is issued when there is evidence of a violation but the violation is “inadvertent, technical, or otherwise of a de minimus nature.”

Hampton was working for Ensign when the Nevada Senator began a relationship with his wife, Cindy. Ensign resigned in the aftermath of the extramarital affair last May, and days later the Senate released a report that concluded he had likely violated both federal civil and criminal laws as well as Senate rules in his pursuit of Cindy Hampton and the subsequent cover- up. Ethics Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said on the floor at the time that the findings were “so disturbing” that had Ensign not resigned, the allegations against him were “substantial enough to warrant the consideration of expulsion.”

The committee said Coburn’s history with Ensign and Hampton supported its finding that Coburn knew Hampton had recently left the Senate.

“Following the meeting, and after Mr. Hampton’s cooling-off period was over, you were 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 lends further credence to your awareness that Mr. Hampton was in his cooling off period in March 2009,” the committee wrote.

Coburn’s office said its response to the Senate announcement would be forthcoming.

The Ethics Committee on Friday also sent a “Public Letter of Admonition” to Bret Bernhardt, a staffer in the office of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

The committee concluded that Bernhardt began setting up meetings between Hampton and DeMint “within days” of Hampton leaving the Senate. The committee said that although there was “troubling evidence of willful conduct,” it did not constitute a criminal violation.

At the same time, the committee also released updated guidance regarding the post-employment contact ban.

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