Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Photojournalist Matt Adams
I-Team: Committee Interviewing Las Vegas Witnesses in Ensign Probe
Senator John Ensign
LAS VEGAS -- Embattled U.S. Senator John Ensign awaits word on whether the Senate Ethics Committee will move forward with public hearings into scandals swirling around the Nevada Republican.
Officially, no decision has been made regarding a formal hearing. But something unfolded in Las Vegas this week that could be a blueprint for the senator's future, and it's not pretty.
All this week, I-Team cameras have been secretly recording as senate investigators talked with a who's who of Las Vegas business and political leaders.
Last month, we reported that criminal investigators from the Department of Justice were in Las Vegas talking to potential witnesses. This week, at least two attorneys for the Senate Ethics Committee were camped out at a hotel near the Strip where they interviewed a string of witnesses whose testimony could mean the end of John Ensign's political career.
What they didn't know is that the I-Team was watching the whole thing go down.
The first familiar face to arrive Monday afternoon at the Marriott Suites was Dan Albregts, attorney for Doug and Cindy Hampton, the husband and wife who worked for Senator Ensign and who were close personal friends with Ensign's family until the senator admitted he'd carried on a long extramarital affair with Mrs. Hampton.
Cindy Hampton has not been seen in public since the scandal erupted, but someone who looks just like her parked behind Albregts, and then followed him inside the Marriott where she remained for two hours.
Later that same afternoon, another potential witness arrived -- Derek Lafavor, owner of Fitech -- accompanied by his attorney George Kelesis. Kelesis later confirmed to us his client was interviewed concerning interactions he had with Ensign and the senator's staff.
Lafavor was subpoenaed earlier this year by both the Ethics Committee and the Justice Department, seeking all records and emails regarding Ensign and Hampton.
Also subpoenaed were executives Jack Williams of eCommLink, Glenn McKay of the Selling Source, and Jim Hammer of Pay Card USA.
Hammer was the first witness to arrive at the Marriott on Tuesday morning. Email records obtained by the committee indicate that Hammer and others were asked by Ensign to find work for Hampton after news of the affair broke.
Records obtained by the I-Team show that Ensign and Hampton visited some of these companies together months after the affair with Mrs. Hampton was known. At one Nevada company, they had photos taken for security badges. Ensign political advisor Lindsay Slanker was also badged for the visit.
During the four day surveillance, the I-Team did not see Doug Hampton or Lindsay Slanker, but a parade of other well-known political figures appeared.
On Tuesday afternoon, prominent Republican strategist Sig Rogich and his chief assistant Chris Cole met with the investigators. They confirmed they were asked about Ensign's attempts to get them to hire Doug Hampton.
On the same day, the co-owners of Nevada's preeminent public relations firms, R&R Partners arrived at the hotel and went inside. Billy Vassiliadis and Pete Ernaut say they cannot talk about what they were asked, though Ernaut, who was once the campaign manager for Ensign, previously confirmed he had also been subpoenaed by the Justice Department.
Each of the potential witnesses who spoke to investigators during the week were given a booklet of procedures, explaining the legal framework for the Ensign probe. They were asked, but not ordered, to keep quiet about the inquiry.
Thursday afternoon, we went to the hotel suite where most of the interviews were held. The Senate staffer who answered was clearly surprised to see us. "No comment. I can't comment," he said.
Sources say the investigators planned to continue meeting with witnesses through Friday, though after our knock on the door they came out to look for cameras and its unknown if the interviews will continue.
For the Ethics Committee to spend an entire week on the ground in Las Vegas, hearing for themselves the stories -- how Ensign tried to find work for Hampton, how he used the same meetings to solicit campaign donations while also offering to help Nevada companies to secure contracts in Washington -- is a strong suggestion the committee is deadly serious about the scandal.
"That they are moving quickly in the Senate Ethics Committee, that they are advancing the investigation, and this is very bad news for Senator Ensign because they seem to be focusing more and more on his misconduct," said Melanie Sloan with the Committee for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington.
The significance of having a team of investigators out here for week is not lost on some of the potential witnesses. A few say they fully expected to be called to testify under oath whenever the Ethics Committee launches a formal, possibly public, hearing into the various threads of this persistent scandal.
One way that messy prospect could be avoided is if Senator Ensign resigns, but he says he did nothing wrong and plans to seek re-election.
Monday, September 1 2014 6:06 PM EDT2014-09-01 22:06:07 GMT
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