Sunday, July 12, 2009 | 2:06 a.m.
Just when it seemed the controversy might subside over Sen. John Ensign’s admission that he had an affair with a campaign staffer, new details have emerged — all of them devastating.
The latest round of revelations started Wednesday, as Doug Hampton spoke publicly for the first time about the affair between his wife and the Republican senator. Doug Hampton is Ensign’s former best friend and one-time top aide. Making the situation even more unseemly is that Doug Hampton’s wife, Cynthia, and Ensign’s wife, Darlene, had been longtime friends.
Those details alone, disclosed in mid-June when Ensign revealed the affair, were bad enough. But we learned of more ugly allegations last week.
Doug Hampton, in an exclusive interview with Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston on Ralston’s television program, “Face to Face,” said Ensign continued to pursue Hampton’s wife even after Ensign wrote a note to her in February 2008 — ostensibly to break off the relationship. But Ensign, according to Hampton, resumed the affair within 24 hours of writing the note. If true, that is just sick.
He also alleged that Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was among a group of people who confronted Ensign about the affair. Hampton said Coburn told Ensign he should end the relationship, pay off the Hamptons’ mortgage on their $1.2 million home in Las Vegas, and help them move to Colorado.
Hampton also told Ralston in his interview that his wife received more than $25,000 in severance from Ensign after she was told to leave her job on Ensign’s campaign committee in April 2008. That revelation, if proved, could turn out to be disastrous for Ensign.
A nonpartisan Washington watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says Ensign did not report such a payment, which is required under federal law. CREW filed complaints against Ensign last month with the Senate Ethics Committee and the Federal Election Commission. Willfully failing to report a payment of more than $25,000 is a felony.
On the day of Hampton’s revelation, Ensign released a one-sentence statement that said Doug Hampton “was consistently inaccurate in his statements.” It’s unclear exactly what those inaccuracies were, because Ensign would neither answer questions about the affair nor respond to Hampton’s specific allegations.
But by Thursday, obviously bowing to potential damage from any failure to report payments to Cynthia Hampton, Ensign did acknowledge that his parents made $96,000 in payments to the Hampton family. Ensign issued a statement that said his father (a former casino mogul) and mother made the payments, following his disclosure of the affair to them, “out of concern of the well-being of the longtime family friends during a difficult time.”
Ensign might characterize the payments as a charitable act, but the large sum will raise questions as to whether this was actually hush money.
Another red flag, and one that deserves John Ensign’s elaboration, is why the $96,000 in payments were in increments of $12,000 — any gift above $12,000 would have to be reported to the IRS and would be subject to taxation. This shows that these payments were well thought out.
What’s also mysterious is the role that Coburn has played in all of this. After Hampton talked to Ralston about Coburn’s efforts to get Ensign to assist the Hamptons last year, the Oklahoma Republican’s office issued the following statement Wednesday:
“Dr. Coburn did everything he could to encourage Sen. Ensign to end his affair and to persuade Sen. Ensign to repair the damage he had caused to his own marriage and the Hamptons’ marriage. Had Sen. Ensign followed Dr. Coburn’s advice, this episode would have ended, and been made public, long ago.”
That initial statement didn’t refute Hampton’s claims and could be seen as a rebuke to Ensign. But just one day later, Coburn struck a different tone.
The Las Vegas Sun’s Lisa Mascaro reported that on Thursday, Coburn “categorically” denied Hampton’s claims, calling them “absolute untruths.” Nonetheless, as Mascaro noted, Coburn didn’t deny having counseled Ensign in February 2008 about the affair.
Coburn, who is both a physician and church deacon, also refused to discuss the nature of his counseling with Ensign. “I’m not going into the details of that and never will,” he said. “I never will — not to a court of law, not to the Ethics Committee, not to anybody, because that is privileged communication.”
We thought Coburn was elected as a senator from Oklahoma. It’s probably news to Oklahomans that they sent him to Washington to represent them as a pastor and a physician, too.
Ensign’s fate is unclear. Politically, the hypocrisy of the “family values” politician engaging in an adulterous affair is damaging enough. But things could get worse, especially if there are government investigations into what happened.
What is certain is that if Ensign continues to stonewall the public, his silence will harm him more. It’s time for Ensign to reveal what he knows and what actions he took after Doug Hampton and others learned about the affair.