Las Vegas Sun

March 3, 2024


GOP support for Ensign dwindles as new details of affair emerge

Doug Hampton interview, part 2 - July 2009

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Doug Hampton interview - July 2009

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Sen. John Ensign with his wife, Darlene, and Cynthia and Doug Hampton.

Sen. John Ensign appeared to be losing support among his Republican base Thursday as the lawmaker disclosed that his parents, who made millions in the casino industry, paid the family of his affair partner $96,000 around the time she and her husband stopped working for him.

Ensign’s parents made the gifts to Doug Hampton and his wife, Cynthia, “out of concern of the well-being of the longtime family friends during a difficult time,” said a statement issued by Ensign’s attorney. The gifts “are consistent with a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family to the Hamptons and others,” the statement said.

Cynthia Hampton, who worked on Ensign’s political committees, and Doug Hampton, Ensign’s former best friend and co-chief of staff, left their jobs in April 2008.

The disclosure concluded another two days of political damage for Ensign.

In Doug Hampton’s first public statements about the scandal, in a televised interview with Sun columnist Jon Ralston that aired Wednesday and Thursday, the former aide said Ensign had promised to end the affair with a heartfelt note of apology, only to resume it the following day.

In brief comments Thursday in Washington, Ensign said, “I said before, I always planned on serving and working hard — working harder than I ever worked — and I’m going to continue to do that.”

But hard work may not restore Ensign’s political future, Republicans said. For many Republicans, the payments by the parents of the 51-year-old senator were viewed as debilitating fodder for late-night humorists.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said of Ensign’s situation: “It’s not good.” Cornyn took over for Ensign after the 2008 elections as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is charged with getting Republicans elected. Cornyn said he has heard no talk of Ensign stepping down.

Asked if Ensign can rebound, Cornyn said, “I just don’t know the answer to that.”

Raw feelings cited

In Nevada, recently retired state Sen. Warren Hardy called Ensign a “good guy who made a mistake” and said that he could seek and receive forgiveness from supporters.

But he also said supporters are feeling raw.

Hardy is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an important part of Ensign’s base of social conservatives.

“There was a lot of disappointment in the community,” Hardy said. “That’s sacrosanct to the LDS community — marriage and family. There’s a lot of disappointment.”

Ensign was so valued among the members of the LDS Church that a few members mistakenly believed Ensign was one of them, Hardy said.

“There’s a willingness to forgive and move on,” he said. “But they want to have some indication of what happened and why. You need answers to move on.”

Hardy noted that Ensign’s problems are especially acute because of his stated Christian conservative principles.

Ensign has a history of outspoken condemnations of the foibles of other public figures, including then-President Bill Clinton.

Republican consultant Steve Wark said Republican activists are shaking their heads, but he said they need to buck up: “I think it’s important to remember for Republicans who hold similar principles, values and political philosophy that what he has done does not diminish those values.”

As for Ensign recovering, however, “Anything is possible, but there’s a tremendous erosion when you’re involved in things like this,” Wark said.

“I would have to think what he has done has made it difficult for him to continue politically,” he said.

Conservative activist and blogger Chuck Muth said Ensign needs to resign for the good of the state and the conservative movement. Muth said he conducted an online poll of his conservative Republican readers, and of more than 400 respondents, a bit more than one-third said Ensign should resign, as of Thursday evening.

As for Ensign’s survival, “It’s so long from now,” Muth said of an Ensign 2012 reelection bid. “If he gets through the summer, he can weather it out. There just can’t be any more shoes,” Muth said, referring to the footwear that has been dropping all around Ensign recently.

Other Republicans seemed aggressively uneager to discuss the matter.

One Republican consultant wrote an e-mail to the Las Vegas Sun with the subject line “Fishing.”

“Sorry — but that’s my alibi today,” he wrote.

Berkley getting calls

Democrats suddenly see opportunity.

Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley acknowledged the affair has “opened up possibilities” for her political future as supporters are encouraging her to run for Ensign’s Senate seat when he is up for reelection in 2012, she said.

“I’m getting phone calls from Nevada and across the country,” Berkley said Thursday.

“I tell them I’m running for my reelection,” she said, referring to her campaign to retain her Las Vegas congressional seat in 2010.

Ensign’s 2012 reelection could be the least of his worries now.

Gift or severance?

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington questioned whether the payments from the Ensigns to the Hamptons were really “gifts” or actually severance, as Doug Hampton referred to the money in his interview with Ralston.

If they were severance payments to Cynthia Hampton, who had worked as treasurer for two campaign committees controlled by Ensign and whose salary doubled during the affair, Ensign could face criminal charges for failing to disclose the payments to the Federal Election Commission.

Ensign attorney Paul Coggins went to lengths to say they were gifts and understood as gifts. (Ensign’s mother and his father each gave $12,000 to each of the Hamptons and to two of their three children. By dividing up the payment into $12,000 increments, they hit the tax-free ceiling for gifts allowed under IRS rules.)

Legal scholars interviewed by the Sun said that just because Ensign is characterizing the payment from his parents as a gift to the Hampton family doesn’t make it so.

Steve Johnson, a professor at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, said the rule of thumb is facts over label.

“You have to look at all the facts: What was the purpose of this transfer? Was it purely charitable? What was the motivation for the payment?” Johnson said.

“These kinds of factual inquiries are conducted all the time,” he said. “You can call a cow a dog, but that doesn’t make a cow a dog,” he said.

Lawsuit possible

Aside from a potential criminal investigation, Ensign could face a lawsuit by the Hamptons.

Hampton indicated to Ralston that Ensign had used his power as Cynthia Hampton’s employer to force her to interact with him.

Ensign used that power “as leverage to contact Cindy,” Doug Hampton said. “She’s trying to get away from John, but he’ll leave messages like, ‘It is about your job; it is a work issue I need to talk about.’ ”

Hampton was evasive when Ralston asked him about a potential lawsuit.

He acknowledged in the interview to seeking financial compensation for what he called his family’s “anger, hurt and pain” and financial hardship after losing their jobs with Ensign.

Ensign told Hampton he could no longer work for him and told him he was in love with his wife, Hampton said.

Colleague drawn in

Ensign’s troubles also extend to his relationships with colleagues.

The affair is weighing on the Senate and has especially drawn in Ensign’s colleague and housemate at the Christian home he shares on the Hill, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Hampton said that after the affair was discovered in late 2007, it continued into winter 2008, when he asked intermediaries to urge Ensign to stop. In February, Hampton said, Coburn and others at the fellowship house where Ensign stays in Washington confronted Ensign. The Nevada senator responded by writing a note of apology to Cynthia Hampton, which was filled with religious sentiment.

Doug Hampton said Coburn told Ensign he needed to pay off the mortgage on their $1.2 million Las Vegas home and move them to Colorado.

Instead, after sending the note to Cynthia Hampton, who was then in Las Vegas, Ensign flew to Nevada and resumed the affair the next day, Doug Hampton said.

After issuing a harshly worded statement Wednesday saying the situation would have been long settled if only Ensign had heeded his advice to end the affair and repair the damage, Coburn on Thursday said Doug Hampton was “manipulating the situation” with “untruths.”

Coburn denied he told Ensign to give the family money, as Doug Hampton claimed, but then declined to disclose more fully the advice he had given Ensign. Coburn claimed he would never disclose his talks with Ensign, citing privilege as a counselor, physician and ordained deacon.

Legal scholars questioned whether Coburn’s privilege claim would stand up in a legal setting.

Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, suggested Coburn may have breached that privilege by issuing a statement discussing the affair.

“He’s basically amalgamating a lot of different concepts to say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you anymore,’ ” she said. “He should have said from moment one I cannot and will not say anything on this matter until the client, Ensign, wants me to.”

As a doctor, Coburn specializes in obstetrics, family practice and the treatment of allergies.

Ensign’s office declined to say whether Coburn is Ensign’s doctor.

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