A new Senate report chronicles the ex-senator's sordid affair, obsession for his mistress, illegal coverup, and Rick Santorum's attempt to protect him. The Daily Beast delivers the most salacious tidbits.
Roll over, Starr Report: There's a new contender for most-sordid Washington sex-scandal. The Senate Ethics Panel released a long-awaited report into former Sen. John Ensign on Thursday. The Nevada Republican was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had an affair with the wife of an aide, had his parents pay the couple nearly $100,000, and then tried to get the aide a lobbying job in violation of federal law.
Sound dry and academic? Wait until you get to the details. The 75-page report [PDF], written by Special Counsel Carol Elder Bruce, a former federal prosecutor, has some of the juiciest details to hit the news since Bill Clinton's cigar. Here are the 12 best moments.
1. An Awkward Workplace Dynamic
Relationships between a boss and an employee are often uncomfortable, but this one takes the cake. Not only did Ensign employ both Doug Hampton and his wife Cynthia, the couple also depended on him to maintain their lifestyle. One $20,000 loan from Ensign to Hampton was forgiven after the affair was revealed. There were also loans totaling $40,000 for refinancing the mortgage on the Hampton's million-dollar home. And yet more, according to the report: "The Hamptons could not afford to send their children to the same school the Ensign children attended and, over Ms. Hampton's objection, the Ensigns paid for the Hampton children to attend the school. The Ensigns paid approximately $15,170 in September 2006, and $23,970 in July 2007, for school tuitions and various other smaller amounts for expenses and school activities. The Hampton children attended public school for a period of time, but the Ensigns continued to insist on paying tuition, so the Hampton children attended the school."
"Mr. Coe called Senator Ensign and stated, 'I know exactly where you are. I know exactly what you are doing. Put your pants on and go home.' Senator Ensign initially said he would not leave the hotel room, telling Mr. Coe 'I can't, I love her.'"
2. Ensign Strikes In a Moment of Weakness
So how did the affair start? In 2007, a burglar struck the Hamptons' Nevada home, and Ensign reportedly insisted the family move in with him. Cynthia Hampton was feeling vulnerable—struck by the burglary, a family member's illness, and her husband's frequent travel to and from Washington. "Senator Ensign initiated the affair by contacting Ms. Hampton and asking her to meet with him. She asked Senator Ensign if he 'lost [his] mind,' and he replied, 'Yes.' Senator Ensign was very persistent and relentless in pursuing Ms. Hampton. According to Ms. Hampton, Senator Ensign 'just [wouldn't] stop,' and 'kept calling and calling,' and 'would never take no for an answer.' " The report demurely notes, "The Special Counsel did not inquire into the intimate details of the affair," but Ensign sounds like a true romantic.
3. The Revelation
There's no good way to find out your spouse is conducting an affair with your friend and boss, but the occasion was particularly awkward for Doug Hampton, who discovered as he and his wife were traveling to the airport to pick up their son—and Ensign was separately traveling there to greet the Hampton's sons. The date was December 23, 2007. Hampton found a text message on his wife's phone from the senator, reportedly saying, "How wonderful it is... Scared, but excited." Hampton confronted his wife and called the senator, but continued on to the airport. "When the cars were parked in the airport parking lot, Mr. Hampton jumped out of his car and chased Senator Ensign in the airport parking lot. Ms. Hampton went into the airport and sat there for hours." At a family meeting the next day, everyone agreed the affair would end, but it was rekindled within a month, when "Senator Ensign gave Ms. Hampton $3,000 in cash to purchase items for herself and to use for hotel rooms in Las Vegas." Doug Hampton discovered the relapse when he borrowed Ensign's cell phone and noticed his wife was entered under a pseudonym.
4. A Pastor Intercedes—Unsuccessfully
Eventually, Tim Coe—a spiritual adviser to Ensign and many other politicians and a leader of the International Foundation—found out about the affair. He even called Ensign during a tryst and demanded he end the affair. "Mr. Coe called Senator Ensign and stated 'I know exactly where you are. I know exactly what you are doing. Put your pants on and go home.' Senator Ensign initially said he would not leave the hotel room, telling Mr. Coe 'I can't, I love her.'" And yes, in case you're wondering, there is already an Internet meme devoted to the conversation.
5. A Romantic Proposal—At the National Prayer Breakfast
Even though both Ensign and Cynthia Hampton were married, the senator was hearing wedding bells. When Doug Hampton again confronted him about the now-restarted affair, the senator responded by saying he planned to marry Hampton's wife and telling him he would no longer work for him, as it might interfere with trysts. "According to Ms. Hampton, the senator subsequently told her that her husband had to leave the Senate office because he did not want Doug to be aware of the senator's schedule, and that Senator Ensign would place fictitious events on his schedule so he could meet with Ms. Hampton." Later, Ensign told Cynthia Hampton he wanted to marry her—while the two were at the National Prayer Breakfast.
6. Torrid Texts
Communication is the key to any healthy relationship. Ensign and Hampton's relationship may not have been so healthy, but they had the communication thing down. In one four-day stretch in March 2008, the two exchanged 76 texts. Ensign's wife Darlene had found out about the phones, so they had to stop using them. Ensign wanted to get another pair—but Cynthia Hampton refused. Still, Ensign was persistent: "Senator Ensign also created email accounts with fictitious names in order to email Ms. Hampton, including email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com. Senator Ensign called Ms. Hampton multiple times during this period from various locations at the Capitol, the Senate gym, and from New York while on a fundraising trip."
7. Consolation Prize
Ensign eventually decided that he and Hampton couldn't work in the same office, but he wanted to keep his former friend happy. The solution? Get him work as a lobbyist. As it turned out, that wasn't legal—but it was disingenuous, too, because Hampton had evinced no interest in and had no experience in the policy matters he was set to work on. "Senator Ensign's staff testified that Mr. Hampton did not show much interest in policy, did not seem to grasp policy issues, and he lacked the horsepower to work on policy matters. Despite all of this, Senator Ensign marketed Mr. Hampton as someone who could provide valuable federal government relations services to Nevada constituents."
8. The $8 Million Hush Money Request
Finding Doug Hampton work wasn't enough: there was also a question of paying the family money to "make them whole." According to the report, Ensign asked his colleague and housemate Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma senator, to negotiate with Daniel Albregts, the Hamptons' lawyer. "Mr. Albregts tried to get a ballpark estimate from Senator Coburn as to the amount he would be comfortable with. Mr. Albregts proposed $8 million based on a document Doug Hampton prepared. According to Mr. Albregts, Senator Coburn said that the figure was 'absolutely ridiculous.' Senator Coburn then stated that the Ensigns should buy the Hamptons home because it is so close to the Ensigns." On Friday, Coburn insisted he hadn't negotiated, and had only been a conduit for information.
9. Rick Santorum Tips Off Ensign
An anguished Hampton eventually decided to go public. One of the people to whom he turned was former Sen. Rick Santorum, a man renowned for his strict stands on morality and family values. Rather than help Hampton out, the Pennsylvanian ratted him out: "Mr. Hampton wrote a letter to Megyn Kelly at Fox News on June 11, 2009 in which he disclosed the affair and sought a meeting with the television station. On June 15, 2009, Mr. Hampton forwarded a copy of the letter in an email to former Senator Rick Santorum, and asked Senator Santorum for help with the matter. Senator Santorum forwarded Mr. Hampton's email and the letter to Senator Ensign at his Gmail address." It's doubly embarrassing for Santorum because when the current presidential candidate was asked in 2009 whether he'd tipped Ensign off, he responded, "I'm not even going to dignify that question, to be honest with you."
10. Severance, Shmeverance
The final payment ended up being a $96,000 gift from Ensign's parents to the Hamptons. But what was it? The senator told staffers it was "severance" equivalent to six months pay and a year of health insurance. That was even in a draft of a statement. But Ensign later changed his story. "Before the payment became public, the senator represented on a number of occasions that it was severance. Later, after receiving legal advice, he changed his explanation and claimed it was an unsolicited gift from his parents to the Hamptons."
11. Drinking the Kool-Aid
Once the news of Hampton's illegal lobbying work leaked, Ensign's office continued to offer false explanations for the senator's role. Embarrassingly, Ensign's chief of staff likened his actions to Jim Jones' followers at Jonestown during a deposition:
Q: So why did you tell The New York Times reporter that? A: To you know, to paint the best picture of the senator on this. Keep in mind, I was still drinking the Kool-Aid at that point. And I mean, that what I said was a mischaracterization of my of the conversation I really had with the senator, was adding in that stuff about complying with the law and so forth.
12. Crime and Punishment
While public attention has giddily and voyeuristically focused on the sordid details, they're in many ways just a sideshow. The fact of the matter is that Ensign could be facing time in a federal penitentiary. The Special Counsel's report states: "There Is Substantial Credible Evidence That Senator Ensign Conspired to Violate, and Aided and Abetted Mr. Hampton s Violations of The Post Employment Contact Ban." And in closing it adds, "Finally, as noted above, the Committee should refer matters outlined herein to the Department of Justice and Federal Election Commission, as approved, for further investigation and consideration of whether criminal prosecution of Senator Ensign is warranted for aiding and abetting a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 207, or conspiring to violate that statute, for making false statements, for obstruction of justice, and for violations of federal campaign laws." That's what John Ensign is really worried about now—not the contents of his several pseudonymous email inboxes.
David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.