(image: Mike Licht)

The John Ensign report from the Senate Ethics Committee is really a sad piece of pulp fiction. You have a US Senator in a strong position of power essentially bullying a female subordinate into an affair,  refusing to give up on it after being caught several times, finally trying to cover up the evidence of the affair and pay off the participants, and lying and covering his tracks as the plot slowly unravels. That’s about it in a nutshell.

But the details are even seamier. Ensign started the affair with Cindy Hampton, who worked for his campaign committee and PAC, and was the wife of his best friend and chief of staff, after the Hamptons had a burglary at their house. Like some kind of bad porno, Ensign suggested that the couple move into his house instead. “Well, you guys are going to have to come and stay with me,” Ensign said. And then the predatory behavior began.

It becomes pretty clear from the report that Ensign forced himself on Cindy Hampton. And the deceit here is voluminous. He spent $1,000 calling her while he was on a Congressional delegation to Iraq. He put her number into his phone under the name “Aunt Judy.” After he was caught, he bought special new phones to contact Hampton. He used fake email addresses to contact her, like “fredschwartz72@yahoo.com.” And it didn’t stop until Ensign’s religious right C Street buddies, including Sen. Tom Coburn, put a stop to it. Even that didn’t fully take:

On February 16, 2008, two days after the intervention, Tim Coe received a call from Doug Hampton. Mr. Hampton was looking for the Senator to have him sign some documents for the NRSC, and saw his car and Ms. Hampton’s car parked in a parking lot of a hotel close to their Summerlin neighborhood. Mr. Coe “pleaded with him [Hampton] to go home.” Mr. Coe called Senator Ensign and stated “I know exactly where you are. I know exactly what you are doing. Put your pants on and go home.” Senator Ensign initially said he would not leave the hotel room, telling Mr. Coe “I cant, I love her [Ms. Hampton].” Senator Ensign ultimately agreed to leave the hotel. After he left the hotel, Senator Ensign told Mr. Coe that he wanted to marry Ms. Hampton.

And he asked her to marry him at the sexy venue of the National Prayer Breakfast.

But aside from this folly, the legal issues here are deep and clear, and not just for Ensign. It was Marty Sherman and Tim Coe of The Fellowship (the C Street people) who developed the plan for “transition finances” for the Hamptons, i.e. a payout. Tom Coburn knew about the plan and supported it, becoming a negotiator between Ensign and Hampton on a cash settlement over damage claims. [cont’d.]

Ensign called initial payments to the Hamptons “severance payments” until he was told by lawyers that was a real no-no. The initial public statement mentioned the payments until a lawyer told him to delete them. Here’s what the lawyer said:

[t]he statement, as currently written, raises a host of potential criminal issues for the Senator. The language draws a direct connection between the affair, the termination of the staffers, and the severance payment. Although the statement attempts to legitimize the reason for the payment, it’s awfully odd that he made the payments from personal funds. If this statement doesn’t get the attention of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, then nothing will.

The severance payments refer to the $96,000 in payments from Ensign’s parents to the Hamptons, which they lied about to the FEC. The FEC, which ignored its own general counsel in dropping the Ensign probe, looks totally useless here.

But obviously, Ensign is in serious legal trouble. Providing for a lobbying job and clients for Doug Hampton represents a violation of the one-year lobbying ban. He did favors for clients connected to Hampton specifically. He lied and obstructed investigations through shredding documents and deleting email accounts. But Coburn has a lot to answer for as well. So do the leaders of the Fellowship. So does Rick Santorum, who apparently got involved in this by tipping off Ensign that Doug Hampton was about to go public on Fox News with details of the escapade. This was after Hampton wrote a personal letter to Santorum asking for help.

And now, we learn that Ensign’s most recent chief of staff, John Lopez, cooperated with the case after being granted immunity from DoJ.

John Lopez, the former chief of staff to Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) who was a key witness in the case against Ensign compiled by the Senate Ethics Committee and its special counsel, agreed to cooperate with the investigation only after the Justice Department granted him immunity from prosecution.

The special counsel working with the Senate Ethics Committee applied for immunity for both Lopez and Doug Hampton, the former Ensign staffer with whose wife Ensign had the affair that ended his Senate career. The Justice Department didn’t agree initially to either request but eventually dropped its opposition to granting immunity to Lopez. Federal prosecutors ultimately indicted Hampton for violating conflict of interest laws.

With Lopez’ evidence, which appears throughout the Ethics Committee report, I don’t know how Ensign will be able to avoid prosecution in this matter. And he was done in by his own arrogance, his belief of being above the law, and pure bullying.

David Dayen

David Dayen