Heard on the Hill

Remember John Ensign? He just got divorced from wife of three decades

Former Nevada senator resigned in 2011, facing threat of expulsion over cover-up of affair

Former Sen. John Ensign finalized a divorce last week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former Sen. John Ensign, who resigned from the Senate in 2011 while facing the possibility of expulsion, has divorced his wife after more than three decades, bringing up memories of a sordid affair that reached as far as the FBI and FEC. 

Ensign, a Republican from Nevada who returned to his veterinary practice after leaving the Senate, had been involved in an extra-marital affair with a staffer of his who was married to his chief of staff, and went to such great lengths to try to hide it that the Ethics panel came to believe he had violated federal civil and criminal law. The FBI and FEC began probes of Ensign, but then either dropped their investigations or dismissed complaints. 

According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the former senator’s divorce from his wife Darlene came after 31 years of marriage. It was finalized Thursday, according to court records reviewed by the newspaper.

While the Ethics Committee generally conducts proceedings behind closed doors and is known for being exceptionally opaque, the leaders of the committee at the time opted to make public a scathing report in spite of Ensign’s announcement that he would be resigning.

The committee referred the matter to the Justice Department, alleging in a highly unusual action that Ensign went well beyond the lines of campaign finance law in pursuit of his former mistress, Cynthia Hampton. Ensign then engaged in all kinds of likely illegal conduct to try to appease Doug Hampton, his mistress’ husband and a former close aide and family friend. That included efforts to find him employment. 

As CQ Roll Call reported at the time of the Ethics Committee making its report, 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.”

Then-Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was the chairwoman of the Ethics panel for its Ensign investigation, said at the time the conduct was brazen beyond belief.

“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 at the time.

Federal authorities reopened their investigation of Ensign but eventually decided not to prosecute. 

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