Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Sad and Strange History of the John Ensign Scandal

When it was first revealed that Senator John Ensign (R-NV) had had an affair with a former campaign staffer, many in the political realm thought his legislative career might survive the scandal. Politico even suggested that with a quick apology and ending the conversation about the affair - much like Senator David Vitter (R-LA) did - he could continue in the Senate without needing much further damage control.

But over the past month, more and more revelations about the affair have come to light - and it all looks worse and worse for Ensign.

To really understand just how tangled and twisted the entire ordeal was - or, perhaps, is - one needs to see the entire history of the scandal. Luckily for us, the Las Vegas Sun has done a very good job chronicling the story.

The Affair Itself

Ensign began his extramarital affair with Cindy Hampton - the treasurer for his campaign committee and Battle Born PAC, as well as his wife’s good friend - in December 2007 after months of “having feelings” for her. She was receiving about $1,900 a month for those two positions until her salary doubled as the affair began.

Meanwhile, Hampton’s husband Doug was working as an administrative assistant to the Senator on the government side (where he was - for those interested - making over $13,000 a month).

But it was sort of an on-again off-again affair. Apparently it stopped in February when Ensign admitted to Doug that he made a mistake and “vowed to change” - but Doug needed to move on.

February - April 2008

Ensign asked his political consultant - Mike Slanker - to hire Doug at his firm, November Inc. Slanker - who apparently had no knowledge of the affair yet - agreed without much thought.

But a few weeks later, Ensign’s wife, Darlene, called Slanker to let him in on everything. Slanker confronted Ensign about it at his office at the NRSC (Note: while Ensign was the Chair of the NRSC, Slanker’s wife, Lindsay, was its Finance Director). He took Doug Hampton off Ensign’s hands, knowing the two couldn’t really work together anymore.

But here’s the real kicker - the reason Ensign was so desperate to get Doug a new job was so he could go back to pursuing Cindy. The affair continued.

Severance, Gift, or Bribe?

Cindy - like her husband - also left Ensign’s employ at the end of April that year. As a severance from the campaign and PAC committees she received $25,000.

As if that wasn’t a significant amount of cash, Ensign’s parents gave Cindy another $96,000 as a “gift”. Actually, it was technically several gifts, as they wrote a series of checks to make sure they wouldn’t have to pay a gifts tax.

When the story was uncovered this year - over a year since the Hamptons stopped working for the Nevada Senator - ethics groups including Citizens for Responsibility filed complaints arguing that the gift was indeed an undocumented severance pay to the Hamptons.

But what is truly interesting is the fact that this looks so much like a pay-off. When the affair was revealed, Doug Hampton said that he was entitled to “millions” for what the Senator had done to him. Although it cannot be proved (and there’s actually evidence to the contrary) Ensign claimed Doug was blackmailing him.

Besides, who would be more inclined to bribe his way out of a sex scandal than an important Republican Senator with presidential ambitions? Even if the gift was not explicitly a bribe, it sure had the feel of one.

It All Comes Out

Sometime after the affair finally ended (around August 2008) and after Doug left November Inc. (a fascinating email exchange shows that Doug was concerned about his role there while Ensign was a client) Doug Hampton decided to bring it all out.

His course of action was a little peculiar. He sent an email to former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) - of all people - with an attached document that spelled out the nature of the scandal. He said in the email that he had met Santorum a few times, and while the former Pennsylvania Senator might not remember him, he had a great respect for his integrity.

More importantly, Santorum had become a contributor for Fox News.

Now, what Santorum was supposed to do with that information is a little confusing. This is what Hampton writes at the end of the message:

“It is my strong request we speak prior to you calling John but I realize I cannot control what you choose to do with the information…Your wisdom, counsel and insight would be greatly appreciated…as well as your help to resolve this terrible cover up.”

And no one knows exactly what happened after that, but in the end it was Ensign who called a news conference and was the first to explain the affair to the press and public.

In the end, he lost several aids (including his Chief-of-Staff) and any chance of becoming President.

Weird Religious Twists

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the story is the involvement of a group known as “The Family” - a Christian fundamentalist organization and powerful lobby group that houses influential people - including dozens of members of Congress - at its headquarters on C Street.

Writer Jeff Sharlet - who recently published a book on The Family - explains the organization as such:

“The Family began with this idea that God does not work through churches but rather through those whom The Family calls the “New Chosen.” They believe they’re chosen by God. They can’t be expected to pray with the rest of us. They need to pray in private with people of equal status.

When you join one of these prayer groups, you give these men veto power over your life, over every aspect of your life. Wives involved with The Family have said, “In my husband’s life, his brothers come first, I come second.”

Ensign was living there in February last year during his affair. Apparently Doug went to the group to explain what was happening and they told Ensign to end it.

One member of Congress living with The Family that purportedly told Ensign to end the affair was Sen. Tom Colburn (R-OK). Colburn had denied knowing about the affair and - once this part of the story broke - refused to speak about his discussion because he was counseling Ensign “as a physician [he’s an OB-GYN] and as an ordained deacon.”

More simply put, The Family observes a “code of silence” as part of its intense secrecy (a secrecy that seems to rival that of the Freemasons).

The only public activity The Family engages in is The Fellowship’s (their broader organization’s) National Prayer Breakfasts.

In fact, Hampton cites the National Prayer Breakfasts in his email to Santorum, reminding the former Senator that they sat together at one when Santorum was a speaker for the event.

And the emails themselves are filled with religion. In Slanker’s email to Hampton, he tells his new employee that “God has put [me and Lindsay] in this place to help and love”.

Hampton’s reply expands on religion even more:

“To give you an update, the Lord has recently introduced [me and Cindy] to a new counselor…With a lot of hard work on our parts, the counselors help and guidance from the Lord I believe we are headed in the right direction.

…I want you to know that my intent was to reveal or discuss what God is teaching me about the leader he is calling me to be knowing the terrible husband and person I have been…”

Ensign’s Future

Since the news of the affair broke, Ensign’s approval rating has dropped 22% and his disapproval rating has risen 20%.

While voters seemed divided in the mid-July survey over whether or not he should run for re-election, the Nevada electorate does seem to take some of the more revealing details of the scandal “very seriously” - and of these details, the newer fact that he fired his staffer in order to pursue the man’s wife is not among them. Nor is there any mention of Ensign's involvement in the strange, egotistical, fundementalist secret society.

As of now he plans to run for re-election. But that election won’t be until November of 2012. The question we’ll have to wait and see for an answer is “will they remember?”

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