After concluding that former Sen. John Ensign had likely violated both federal civil and criminal laws in the aftermath of an extra-marital affair, the Senate Ethics Committee on Thursday issued a devastatingly detailed portrait of a lawmaker so consumed with his own desire that he was oblivious or indifferent to the casualties left in his wake.
The striking 75-page report, prepared by a special counsel hired by the committee to investigate the Nevada Republican, describes a wayward lawmaker so brazen in his attempts to woo the wife of his top aide — that he ignored pleas from longtime advisers and Congressional colleagues to end the affair, proposed to his mistress at the National Prayer Breakfast and asked staffers and family to break gift, lobbying and campaign finance laws once the tryst had soured.
“The concealment conduct in this case by Senator Ensign exceeded the normal acts of discretion and created a web of deceit that entangled and compromised numerous people, including a loyal Chief of Staff,” the report said.
In voting unanimously to take the rare step of referring a former colleague to both the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission, Ethics Committee leaders also made the unusual decision to announce the special counsel’s conclusions on the Senate floor. Ethics Chairman Barbara Boxer said “these findings are so disturbing” that had Ensign not resigned on May 3, his misconduct “would have been substantial enough to warrant the consideration of expulsion.”
“When Senator Ensign resigned, he said, and I quote ‘I have not violated any law, any rule or a standard of conduct’ unquote. I want to go on record as chairman of the Ethics Committee to say how strongly I disagree with that statement,” Boxer said.
Ensign’s attorneys said Thursday that the committee rushed to judgment on issues without reviewing the Senator’s explanations, and the attorneys denied any crimes.
While Ensign has admitted to making mistakes and poor behavior “this is not the same as agreeing that he did or intended to violate any laws or rules,” attorneys Robert Walker and Abbe Lowell said in a statement.
Ensign filed a detailed statement with the committee Wednesday, and the lawyers said “given his resignation and announcement that he was not running for re-election, there does not seem to be any real reason for a rush to create a report.”
Ethics investigators said they were “careful not to seek intimate details of the extramarital affair” during the 22-month investigation, which required 32 subpoenas for documents, the review of more than a half-million pages and the testimony of 72 witnesses. Nevertheless, the report tells the story of how two families that were supposed to “walk through life together” instead ended in ruin.
Ensign, one-time chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and rising star in the Republican Party, was forced to resign from his Senate seat and faces possible criminal and civil investigations by the Justice Department and the FEC. His former aide, Doug Hampton, was indicted in March for violating a one-year ban on lobbying after leaving the Hill. His former mistress, Cynthia Hampton, has filed for both bankruptcy and divorce. There are allegations that his parents, Michael and Sharon Ensign, may have submitted false affidavits to the FEC in their effort to help Ensign cover up illegal severance payments made from a family trust.
The friendship between the Hamptons and the Ensigns began when Ensign’s wife, Darlene, attended high school with Cynthia Hampton in Anaheim Hills, Calif. The two young women remained close after graduation, introducing the men that would one day be their spouses. Cynthia Hampton was a bridesmaid to Darlene Ensign when they married; their children were born just days apart.
When the Hamptons relocated from Southern California to Las Vegas in 2004, it fulfilled the two men’s “dream to always live by each other,” Cynthia Hampton testified. Her husband stayed with the Ensigns until the Senator helped him land a job at NV Energy. Cynthia Hampton took a role in the campaign office. The Hamptons purchased a home in the same gated community so the families could be just minutes apart.
For several happy years, the Hamptons and the Ensigns at times operated as one large family, holding joint dinners on Sunday evenings, playing golf and taking vacations to Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe and Del Mar. Cynthia Hampton drove carpools for the children of both families. Ensign paid for the Hampton children to attend the same private school as his own and helped with the purchase of an expensive house, luxuries which the family could not otherwise afford.
“They were always invited to everything, no matter what,” his father, Michael Ensign, testified during the investigation. “They were always there. They were best friends. And the kids were best friends.”
The idyllic existence began to sour when in November 2007 the Hampton family home was burglarized, prompting them to move into the Ensign residence, where the affair began. On Christmas Eve of that year, the two couples held a teary meeting in the Senator’s home office to discuss the affair and why it had to end, then celebrated the holiday jointly with their children.
But despite the promises made to their respective spouses, the affair continued.
On Valentine’s Day 2008, Ensign’s spiritual adviser Tim Coe, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Doug Hampton and others staged an intervention at the C Street house Ensign shared with a group of lawmakers. Just days afterward, when Ensign was holed up with Cynthia Hampton in a hotel, Coe again pleaded with the Senator to end the affair, saying: “I know exactly where you are. I know exactly what you are doing. Put your pants on and go home.”
But Ensign did not go home. Instead, the Senator said Doug Hampton could no longer work for him because Ensign was “in love with Ms. Hampton and wanted to marry her.” He redoubled his efforts to continue the affair, arranging for the purchase of two new cellphones so they could communicate undetected.
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.
CREW previously asked the FEC and the Ethics Committee to investigate Ensign’s role in the payment made to the Hamptons. In a later complaint, it also asked the committee to examine the role of Coburn as an intermediary negotiator.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.