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November 27, 2014

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THE SENATOR’S SCANDAL :

In D.C., some worry Ensign saga is not over

Reid and McConnell, meanwhile, stop short of showing public support

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Doug Hampton interview, part 2 - July 2009

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Doug Hampton interview - July 2009

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Parental Payments

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The story of Republican Sen. John Ensign’s affair has entered an uneasy space in the Capitol, as the shock over the revelation that his parents paid the woman’s family has subsided, but colleagues and supporters remain nervous that the story is not over.

Ensign told the Las Vegas Sun this week that he plans to remain in office and to seek reelection in 2012, suggesting that his peers and Senate leaders on both sides of the political aisle have encouraged him to stand tall.

Yet when asked Tuesday whether he would support those efforts, the Senate’s Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, again declined to throw his support to the one-time member of his leadership team.

“I think Sen. Ensign will have to speak to those issues himself,” McConnell said when asked by the Sun. It was the second time in less than a week that McConnell had sidestepped such questions.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has spoken to Ensign, but his spokesman said Reid believes “this is Ensign’s own personal decision to make.” The two senators have an agreement not to criticize each other publicly.

At a dinner meeting of Republican Party activists in Las Vegas this week, no member of the party’s central committee called for a formal rebuke or censure of Ensign.

The party has a shallow bench in Nevada, and Ensign has long been the most popular elected official in the state. He might ride out the scandal much the way Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana has been able to prepare for his reelection in 2010 just a short time after the conservative lawmaker admitted having visited a prostitute.

That is, unless the Ensign story continues.

“There’s a nervousness that maybe the full story has not been told,” said a Republican strategist from Nevada. “Most people think there’s another shoe to drop.”

Another Nevada Republican said “people are just anxious for it to be over.”

Ensign appeared more confident this week, emboldened, as he stepped off the Senate floor into the busy main foyer, rather than slipping out side exits as he had done when he first went public with his affair.

On Tuesday, Ensign, with his youngest son in tow, stopped briefly to chat with reporters and sign the cast of one, engaging in upbeat banter before heading into his party’s weekly policy lunch.

Ensign disclosed last week that his parents paid $96,000 to the family of the woman, Cynthia Hampton, around the time she and her husband, Doug Hampton, stopped working for him in April 2008.

Cynthia Hampton had been the senator’s campaign treasurer and Doug Hampton had been one of Ensign’s top aides.

Yet questions remain, including whether investigations into the payments and the circumstances surrounding the woman’s departure from the senator’s staff will be under way.

An ethics group in Washington has filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee, and asked for a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington raises questions about possible sexual harassment in the woman’s departure and alleges a potential felony violation of campaign finance law if Ensign paid the woman a severance, as her husband claims, but failed to report it as would be required under campaign finance law.

Ensign has insisted the payments from his parents to the woman, her husband and two of their three children were given and accepted as gifts.

New details also could arise if Cynthia Hampton breaks her silence and speaks out about the affair, or if the Hamptons file a lawsuit, which they apparently are considering.

On Tuesday, more information emerged about the confrontation between Ensign and his peers during which they sought to put an end to the affair. The meeting took place at the Christian group residence he shares on Capitol Hill.

Former Republican Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma told the Tulsa World that he and the others intervened because Ensign was “wandering off the reservation.”

Largent said that although the men at the residence help to keep one another in line, the direct confrontation of a lawmaker was unusual.

“In my perspective, particularly in this environment when you are talking about members of Congress, guys in office just don’t get confronted that often, particularly by their peers,” Largent said.

Largent said the goal was to persuade Ensign to end the affair and allow his family to repair itself. The paper reported that Largent said the group left unsure of its effect on Ensign, but that eventually the meeting produced a “good result.”

The former NFL star said Doug Hampton was not present for the confrontation and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who arranged the meeting, did not suggest any payment as restitution to the family, as Doug Hampton claimed in a TV interview last week with Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston.

“I think learning of the money situation was a shock to everybody,” Largent told the paper, referring to the $96,000 payment.

Coburn has confirmed he was at the February 2008 intervention, but strongly denied he suggested a payment, saying he counseled Ensign to end the affair and repair the damage.

Largent no longer lives at the C Street house but remains close to his colleagues, attending weekly dinner and counseling sessions, he told the paper. The conservative Republican served in Congress from 1994 to 2002.

Ensign has been among the harsher critics of other lawmakers who have had affairs, calling on President Bill Clinton to resign over the Monica Lewinsky scandal and more recently trying to push out former Sen. Larry Craig, the Republican who declined to seek reelection in Idaho after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct after his arrest on charges that he sought sex from a plainclothes police officer in a men’s room at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Sun reporter J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this story.

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