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September 2, 2014

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The tangled web of deception John Ensign wove

In mid-February 2008, shortly after the God-fearing men of C Street confronted him about his affair with a staff member, Sen. John Ensign returned to Nevada.

It was Presidents Day weekend and the senator had some business to attend to — he had to find a job for his administrative assistant, aka his lover’s husband, so he could get him out of Washington, D.C. So Ensign asked his top political operative, Mike Slanker, if he would give Doug Hampton a place to hang his shingle at Slanker’s company, November Inc. Slanker, who was then helping Ensign run the National Republican Senatorial Committee, agreed to help Hampton, whose wife, Cynthia, was having an affair with the senator.

Slanker knew nothing of those sordid details that Presidents Day weekend 18 months ago, but he soon would. Only a few weeks after he had agreed to hire Hampton, Darlene Ensign, the senator’s wife, called Slanker and let him know about the affair. Shortly thereafter, in the chairman’s office of the NRSC, Slanker confronted Ensign about the affair with Doug Hampton sitting there. With Ensign’s blessing, Slanker had agreed to hire Hampton in a few months, but the senator had deceived him as to why Hampton was leaving D.C. and why Ensign was so desperate to get him a job.

Just when you thought it was seamy enough, just when you thought the story of a senator having an affair with a staff member whose husband was a good friend and top aide was scandalous enough, just when you thought the senator getting dad to pay off the couple to assuage his guilt was creepy enough, now that the actual time line is unfolding, the story actually gets worse.

Worse, that is, for the stonewalling senator, who has refused to answer any questions about his less-than-believable explanation for the $96,000 the Hamptons received. Worse now, thanks to this time line Slanker and Hampton confirm, for a manipulative narcissist who now appeared to be willing to put two longtime loyal operatives and their business at risk to try to cover his tracks. And, in the worst interpretation of it, Ensign used Slanker and his wife, Lindsey, then the top finance person for the NRSC, to get Hampton out of the way so he could continue to pursue his wife.

And John Ensign thinks he should remain a U.S. senator and should run for reelection? He can still talk, as he did in announcing his opposition to Sonia Sotomayor, about protecting the “sanctity of the Constitution,” when “sanctity” is a word that anyone with shame would have at this point voluntarily excised from his vocabulary.

The time line has now come into focus after e-mails were released this week — I have posted them on my blog on the Sun’s Web site — that indicate the Slankers knew in July 2008 of the affair, a few months after Hampton came to work at November Inc. Mike Slanker had told the AP shortly after Ensign disclosed the affair two months ago that he knew nothing of the liaison when he hired Hampton.

But it all depends on what the meaning of “hired” is. Slanker now says he thought he had “hired” Hampton when they talked on that Presidents Day weekend, an agreement to take him into November Inc. when he left the senatorial office in a few months. Slanker acknowledged in an interview Tuesday that he probably should have been more clear in those initial media interviews. Slanker probably realizes he caused many of his own problems by not being explicit about when he knew, thus contributing to the notion of a cover-up.

But a cover-up, witting or not, is indeed what occurred starting nearly a year and a half ago as the Slankers became part of an orchestrated ruse to make it seem as if the Hamptons simply had decided to come home to Nevada. And those e-mails are freighted with the kind of emotion and tension that must have been distracting to Ensign and the Slankers as they tried to operate the NRSC — the results, of course, were that the Democrats won a supermajority, a near wipeout.

Ensign has used possible Senate Ethics Committee and Federal Election Committee probes as hollow excuses not to answer basic questions about his behavior and the parental payoff. So the revelation that he used close friends and associates to help save himself, while putting their livelihoods at risk, should come as no surprise.

But the real question now is for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP Senate caucus: Do you really still want this guy in your club?

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