Sunday, March 27, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
On New Year’s Eve 2009, showing the generosity of spirit his family always had toward the Hamptons, Sen. John Ensign had this to say when asked about potential violations of a cooling-off law by the best friend he had betrayed:
“That’s his problem,” Ensign dismissively said of Doug Hampton. “That’s not my problem.”
Displaying the same chilling lack of proportionality and responsibility, the Justice Department last week showed that it agrees with Ensign by indicting Hampton on seven counts of breaking the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. In another cruel twist, Ensign, like some rape victim, is identified only as “Senator A” in the indictment — the possibilities for the “A” are endless.
The charges are serious. But in this serpentine, sordid and thoroughly creepy descent into the D.C. swamp, Doug Hampton is the misdemeanant and John Ensign is the felon.
Honest Leadership and Open Government Act? Yes, Ensign is quite the avatar of honest leadership — the self-appointed moral leader who pointed fingers while never glancing in the mirror, hypocrisy worthy of a publicly sanctimonious but privately womanizing televangelist. And as for open government, Ensign happily opened his Senate life to his best friend and wife, then carried on an affair with her for months before sending the Hamptons packing back to Nevada with $96,000 in hush money from his parents.
As Bill Withers might have put it, Ensign kept on using them until he used them up. He had bigger fish to fry, and the Hamptons were in the way of his ambitions, first in the Senate and then, perhaps, to the White House.
The affair, the aftermath, the destruction? That was their problem, not his.
The Justice Department’s message:
Doug Hampton, who is broke and broken, is a criminal who should go to prison; John Ensign, who is still a senator, is an innocent man who should go home.
The Justice Department? Is there a greater oxymoron?
Let me be clear: This is not a hard case for the Justice Department to prove. Hampton all but confessed last year to what he had done and provided damning (to himself) emails to The New York Times. There’s no question that the contacts with Ensign’s office alleged in the indictment took place because Hampton documented them.
So it’s Hampton’s problem, not the senator’s.
But Hampton has always said that Ensign knew what he was doing, that he conspired to help him violate the cooling-off law. All that he has provided — so far — are emails that show he contacted Ensign underlings. But here’s where it gets dicey — or should — for Ensign:
When he helped Hampton get jobs, with NV Energy and Allegiant Air, or when he facilitated consulting contracts for him, did Ensign actually not know Hampton would contact him for favors? And speaking of favors, did anyone hire Hampton because of his manifest talents or because a U.S. senator asked them to?
And, most importantly: What efforts has the Justice Department made to find out what Ensign knew and when he knew it? Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has submitted requests for the Justice Department paper trail, but no justice likely there.
Remember the timeline, folks: Ensign would have done anything to keep news of the affair private, and Doug Hampton was the only one who might squelch his aspirations to climb the Senate leadership ladder and then gaze toward 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. So would Ensign have gone so far as to conspire to help Hampton circumvent the cooling-off law to keep him quiet? Was the $96,000 simply a down payment on promises of future lobbying/consulting riches?
Maybe the feds are satisfied that Ensign has announced his retirement. And no one I have talked to has any faith that the Senate Ethics Committee will do anything but wish Ensign well in his future endeavors.
The Justice Department/Senate Ethics Committee inaction vis-a-vis Ensign? That’s Hampton’s problem, not his.
Many people — too many, I say — have wanted to harshly judge both Hamptons from the beginning, drawing an equivalency between what they did and what the senator did.
But whatever mistakes they made were not those of a moralizing U.S. senator who slept with his wife’s best friend and his best friend’s wife, was caught, sought “spiritual” guidance from his godly frat brothers at the infamous C Street house, tried to buy the Hamptons’ silence, helped Doug Hampton find jobs and then, in the unkindest cut of all, played the victim as Hampton pursued his obsessive, self-destructive quest for revenge.
Ensign likes to invoke Jesus, but he’s playing the role of Pilate here. He is allowing Hampton to be crucified while he washes his hands, ablutions that can never clean the stain of what he has done.
So the man who relied on the “friend” who made him a cuckold to help him regain his life may be going to prison, and the man who violated the public trust and the moral precepts he lorded over everyone else is going home.
That’s Doug Hampton’s problem, not John Ensign’s.