Sunday, July 5, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Handling the public display of contrition (6-27-2009)
- Off the cuff, Ensign guarded but genial (6-26-2009)
- Fox News had Hampton’s letter earlier than it said (6-24-2009)
- For Ensign, a new lot in Congress (6-24-2009)
- Ensign apologizes during lunch with GOP senators (6-23-2009)
- Back in Washington, Ensign received warmly (6-23-2009)
- Ensign back in D.C.; group plans ethics complaint (6-22-2009)
- In state GOP, Ensign finds few defenders (6-21-2009)
- War of words between Ensign and Hampton escalates (6-20-2009)
When Sen. John Ensign hired Doug Hampton to be his senior aide in November 2006, Nevada Republicans were baffled.
Hampton was an unknown, without a policy profile or political experience.
According to eight Nevada and Washington Republicans, Hampton’s chief qualification: He and Ensign were best friends, as were their wives.
“It was a hire based on a relationship,” said a prominent Republican who was granted anonymity to speak freely.
“Best pals,” said another Republican. “It was ridiculous.”
Ensign’s decision to hire Hampton turned out to be fateful. From the end of 2007 until August 2008, Ensign had an affair with Hampton’s wife, Cynthia, who also worked for Ensign. The senator acknowledged the affair last month in a brief statement.
The matter threatens to destroy the career of the second-term lawmaker, who had been considered a rising star in Republican politics. Ensign faces the possibility of multiple investigations related to the affair, his relationships with his employees and payments to the Hamptons. Ensign and the Hamptons declined to be interviewed for this story.
Among the questions Republicans are asking:
Why did Ensign hire the Hamptons?
More fundamentally, who are they?
An unusually low profile
Few people in Washington or Nevada are familiar with the one-time top aide, which is unusual. Senior aides to U.S. senators are generally well known in policy and political circles, especially if the senator has a profile as high as the one Ensign enjoyed.
Cynthia Hampton and Darlene Ensign have been friends since they both attended Canyon High School in Anaheim, Calif. Cynthia and Doug Hampton married in the late 1980s, and they lived in Orange County, Calif., in the 1990s.
Doug Hampton, who has a business management degree from California State University, Fullerton, worked in the Southern California aerospace industry for more than 25 years, according to a biography distributed at a 2006 energy industry conference.
In 2004, the Hamptons purchased a 4,360-square-foot stucco villa on a cul-de-sac in a Summerlin-area gated community for $1.2 million. The Ensigns live nearby. The Hamptons keep mostly to themselves, said several neighbors who requested anonymity because of the high profile nature of the dispute.
When the Hamptons first came to Nevada, Doug Hampton got a job at what was then Nevada Power. A Republican source said Ensign helped Hampton land there. He was a manager in the conservation department. At the time, before the company won credit for conservation toward its required renewable energy portfolio, the department was likely not viewed as a place for rising stars.
Cynthia Hampton went to work for the Ensign political operation, where she would stay until April 2008, months before the affair ended.
The Hamptons were not politically active and did not donate money to political campaigns, which is consistent with what appears to be their largely apolitical life in Southern California, according to campaign records.
The families bonded through shared history, as well as children and faith, people who know them say.
Doug and Cynthia Hampton have three children, as do the Ensigns. The Hamptons have twins who attend Faith Lutheran High School, a private academy in Las Vegas. Blake Hampton and the Ensigns’ son Trevor are in the same grade and were close friends who played on the golf and basketball teams together, said a former teammate who graduated in 2007.
The Hampton and Ensign families also shared conservative evangelism, according to people who know them. The men shared a commitment to the principles of Promise Keepers, a Christian fellowship that espouses strong marriages and families.
Friends, then employees
The personal side of their lives spread into the professional when Ensign hired the couple. Cynthia Hampton became treasurer of Ensign’s reelection campaign and his Battle Born Political Action Committee in 2007. She saw her salary double during the affair, before she left the job in May 2008.
An Ensign spokesman said Cynthia Hampton received a pay increase at Battle Born PAC and Ensign for Senate when she became responsible for direct mail, accounting and compliance.
Doug Hampton made $160,000 annually in his Senate job.
The Hamptons’ 19-year-old son, Brandon, received $5,400 from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Ensign controlled, for work as an intern in summer 2008.
The Ensign spokesman said Doug Hampton approached the committee’s staff about hiring his son in spring 2008. He said Brandon Hampton worked as a full-time intern and his pay was consistent with his responsibilities. The young man went to Washington after finishing high school and planned to return to Las Vegas to attend college after the summer, the spokesman said. John Ensign was not consulted as part of the decision to hire Brandon Hampton at the committee, he added.
Help from Ensign
Doug Hampton left Ensign’s office in April 2008, some months after he discovered the affair. He went to work at a political firm, November Inc., which has close ties to Ensign. Hampton then went to work at Allegiant Air, whose CEO has given tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Ensign.
Sources for Allegiant Air and in Republican politics say Ensign was instrumental in helping Hampton land those jobs, fueling questions about whether these payments and jobs were hush money.
In early 2008 the Hamptons put their two-story, five-bedroom, 5 1/2 bathroom home on the market for $1.66 million, according to one neighbor. It has not sold.
Ensign’s associates told other media outlets he had been “extorted” by the Hamptons, though his spokesman later said he revealed the affair because the Hamptons approached a major news outlet after asking for a large sum of money.
The Las Vegas Sun disclosed the nature of that approach last month. Doug Hampton wrote a letter to Fox news detailing the affair, but the document drew attention here and in Washington almost as much for its style as its substance.
In the world of Washington, home to driven, type-A perfectionists, Doug Hampton’s single-spaced missive stood out for its clunky English and spelling errors. For example: “I have great respect and affection for Fox News and many of your collages,” he wrote, meaning colleagues.
The letter leads back to the question Republicans are asking: Why did Ensign hire Hampton?
“There a lot of people who do this stuff for a living who could have done that job,” said Chuck Muth, the conservative activist and former executive director of the state Republican Party.