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At times that spring, the Senator and his mistress would exchange a dozen or more text messages in a given day, the committee found. He emailed her from email accounts with fictitious names.
Just days after firing his aide, the Senator started “pressuring contributors and constituents to hire Mr. Hampton even though he had no public policy experience or value as a lobbyist other than access to the Senator and his office,” according to the report. Email exchanges reveal that Ensign wanted his chief of staff to “take the heat on his behalf” when Hampton began to represent clients like Entravision, Allegiant Airlines and others just days after leaving Ensign’s payroll, steps that would eventually lead to his own indictment for violating the one-year lobbying ban.
During the same time period, Ensign began to consider paying the Hampton family a severance as they “transitioned to a new life,” which he envisioned to be in Colorado. On April 7, 2008, the Hamptons and two of their three children each received checks from the Ensign Family Trust — controlled by Ensign’s parents — that totaled $96,000, written separately to avoid surpassing the threshold that would require the payment of a gift tax.
For a year, Hampton continued lobbying Ensign, until he was “tired of living a lie” and hired a Las Vegas lawyer, the report said. The attorney reached out to Coburn to discuss a more robust compensation package for the Hamptons’ troubles, initially citing $8 million as a figure that would allow them to leave Nevada and get on with their lives.
Coburn called that figure “absolutely ridiculous” and suggested that $1.2 million for the Hampton’s house and $1.6 million to get them started in another state was more “what I had in mind and I think that’s fair,” according to Hampton’s lawyer’s testimony.
When Ensign did not agree, Doug Hampton wrote to a Fox News anchor about the affair and forwarded the message to former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who shared it with Ensign.
At 3 a.m. on June 16, 2009, Ensign called an emergency staff meeting to disclose his affair with Cynthia Hampton. Staffers present remember the term “severance payments” being used to describe the $96,000 given to the Hamptons, though Ensign and his parents later claimed the money was a gift after lawyers warned him that using the term severance would raise a “host of criminal issues for the Senator ... if this statement doesn’t get the attention of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, then nothing will.”
By mid-summer, both the Ethics Committee and the FEC were investigating the payments made from the Ensign trust to the Hampton family. Though the commission’s inquiry was dismissed in November 2010, after both Michael and Sharon Ensign signed affidavits that the money was the sort of gift they would typically give to friends of the family, the Senate report has found there is “substantial credible evidence” that both Ensign and his parents submitted “materially false affidavits” for which they could be criminally liable if the commission reopens its investigation.
“Maybe this will embarrass them to do something now,” said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington about the lack of action taken thus far by both the FEC and the DOJ.