Wide cast caught up in Ensign affair
WASHINGTON – With the click of a forwarded email, Rick Santorum let Sen. John Ensign know that the cuckolded husband of Ensign’s mistress was going public.
Santorum, formerly a Pennsylvania senator and now a presidential candidate touting family values, is only one of many political and spiritual figures drawn into the tale of Ensign’s sexual misconduct, political dealings and personal ruin that led to the senator’s resignation May 3 and a scathing Senate ethics committee report this week.
Many of those named in the report are only incidentally connected to the case. Others tried to help hush up Ensign’s unpleasantness with cash, advice or both. The list is a long one. It includes Ensign’s parents; Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Tim Coe, Ensign’s longtime spiritual advisor connected to the National Prayer Breakfast and the C Street townhouse where Ensign and other lawmakers lived while in Washington.
Ensign made his resignation effective on the day before he was to have testified under oath about his affair with the wife of a top aide, the aide’s subsequent lobbying of Ensign’s office and a $96,000 payment from Ensign’s parents to the couple involved, Doug and Cindy Hampton.
The ethics committee said Thursday that Ensign broke federal laws, made false statements to the Federal Election Commission and obstructed the Senate panel’s investigation. The committee sent the results of its investigation to the Justice Department for possible prosecution, saying it had assembled enough evidence to warrant expelling Ensign from the Senate if he hadn’t resigned.
The report’s brief reference to Santorum alleges no wrongdoing on the part of the Republican presidential aspirant.
The committee wrote that Doug Hampton, Ensign’s former chief of staff and husband of his mistress, Cynthia, wrote a letter to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly on June 11, 2009, in which he disclosed the affair and sought a meeting. On June 15, Hampton emailed the letter to Santorum and asked for help. Santorum forwarded Hampton’s email to Ensign at a Gmail address that evening at about 10:20 p.m.
“Sen. Ensign immediately called an emergency staff meeting in the late evening … that lasted until approximately 3:00 a.m. on June 16,” the ethics committee reported. “During that staff meeting, Sen. Ensign disclosed the affair, and also disclosed that he had made a severance payment to the Hamptons.”
In an interview Friday, Santorum adviser John Brabender said he had not spoken with Santorum since the committee report came out but had no reason to dispute it. Brabender said he did not know why Santorum forwarded Hampton’s email to Ensign.
Santorum, then a contributor to Fox News, did not know Hampton at the time, but did know Ensign from the Senate, so “I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t forward” the email, Brabender said.
Santorum did not immediately return the AP’s requests for comment.
Coburn tried to get Ensign to call off the affair with Cynthia Hampton, then later tried to broker a settlement between Ensign and the couple, according to the report.
Ensign eventually got Hampton a lobbying job with November Inc., a Nevada-based consulting company, after misleading the founders of the company on the reasons Hampton was leaving Ensign’s office, the ethics committee said. Ensign’s wife, Darlene, told the consulting company’s co-founder, Mike Slanker, about the affair, according to the committee’s report. Slanker then confronted Ensign, who offered a “very weak” apology while eating Wheat Thins, the report said. Slanker ended up hiring Hampton nonetheless.
Coe, Ensign’s spiritual advisor, tried to get Ensign to call off the affair, including one incident in which he phoned Ensign from outside a hotel where the senator and his mistress were ensconced.
“I know exactly where you are. I know exactly what you are doing,” Coe told Ensign, according to the report. “Put your pants on and go home.”
At one point, Coe is reported to have expressed incredulity when Ensign said he had gotten Hampton a job as a lobbyist with November Inc.
“Well, that’s insane,” Coe says.
In August 2008, three months after he resigned from Ensign’s staff, Doug Hampton accepted a job as a lobbyist at Allegiant Airlines and began trying to develop relationships between Allegiant and federal officials.
The following January and in violation of a law that forbids former Senate employees from lobbying current ones for a year, Hampton pressed Ensign’s chief of staff, John Lopez, to set up a meeting between Allegiant and federal officials, including newly installed Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood, the committee said. Lopez, still unaware of the affair, agreed. Ensign called LaHood on January 29 to request that he meet with Allegiant officials; LaHood agreed and the meeting took place on March 11.
The day after the LaHood meeting, Hampton and the Allegiant officials attended a welcome breakfast hosted by Ensign and House Majority Leader Harry Reid, who also represents Nevada, in one of the Capitol’s most elaborate parlors.
Lopez and Hampton corresponded numerous times on official business between February and May 2009 on legislation important to Allegiant. The issues included the Family and Medical Leave Act, travel restrictions to Cuba and carbon monoxide regulations, the report said.
“Sitting here today, it’s painfully clear to me … that we were being influenced to make a favorable outcome for Allegiant,” Lopez, who was granted immunity, told the committee.
More Washington figures became entangled. The report details one incident in which “Ensign used his office and staff to intimidate and cajole constituents into hiring Mr. Hampton.” When a Las Vegas developer declined to hire Hampton for government affairs work on the advice of Ensign supporter Sig Rogich, Ensign was furious. He told Lopez to phone Rogich “‘and jack him up to high heaven and tell him that he is cut off from the office and never to contact (Senator Ensign) ever again,'” the report said.
“When the senator asked me to do that, I really felt like this is wrong,” Lopez told the committee. “I remember really feeling like that was abusing the office, you know, cutting someone off from official action because he didn’t hire (Hampton).”
In his farewell speech on May 3, Ensign reflected on the value of hiring the right staff and offered his colleagues – none of whom showed up to hear him – some advice.
Senators should surround themselves with people who will be honest with them, Ensign said, “and then make them promise not to hold back, no matter how you may try to prevent them from telling you the truth.”
He also referenced the wide range of people drawn into his personal drama.
“I know that many of you were put in difficult situations because of me, and for that I sincerely apologize,” he said.