Early last year, Sen. John Ensign contacted a small circle of political and corporate supporters back home in Nevada — a casino designer, an airline executive, the head of a utility and several political consultants — seeking work for a close friend and top Washington aide, Douglas Hampton.
“He’s a competent guy, and he’s looking to come back to Nevada. Do you know of anything?” one patron recalled Ensign asking.
The job pitch left out one salient fact: the senator was having an affair with Hampton’s wife, Cynthia, a member of his campaign staff. The tumult that the liaison was causing both families prompted Ensign, a two-term Republican, to try to contain the damage and find a landing spot for Hampton.
In the coming months, the senator arranged for Hampton to join a political consulting firm and lined up several donors as his lobbying clients, according to interviews, e-mail messages and other records. Ensign and his staff then repeatedly intervened on the companies’ behalf with federal agencies in Washington, often after urging from Hampton.
While the affair made national news in June, the role that Ensign played in assisting Hampton and helping the clients he represented has not been previously disclosed. Several legal experts say those activities may have violated an ethics law that bans senior aides from lobbying the Senate for a year after leaving their posts. In acknowledging the affair, Ensign cast it as personal transgression, not a professional one. But an examination of his conduct shows that in trying to clean up the mess from the illicit relationship and distance himself from the Hamptons, he entangled political supporters, staff members and Senate colleagues, some of whom say they now feel betrayed by Ensign.
For example, a longtime fundraiser and Republican Party campaign official who came through with help says Ensign misled him about why Hampton needed a new job. The senator also put his chief of staff at the time, who had raised concerns that Hampton’s activities could violate the one-year ban on lobbying, in charge of dealing with him.
And Ensign allowed Sen. Tom Coburn, a friend and fellow conservative Christian, to serve as an intermediary with the Hamptons four months ago in discussing a multimillion-dollar financial settlement, to help them rebuild their lives.
“John got trapped doing something really stupid and then made a lot of other mistakes afterward,” Coburn, R-Okla., said in an interview. “Judgment gets impaired by arrogance, and that’s what’s going on here.”
In a statement, Ensign said: “I am confident we fully complied with the relevant laws and rules governing current and past employees. I have worked on these Nevada issues with these Nevada companies for years, long before Doug Hampton left my office.”
The senator declined to be interviewed. But his office said that the inquiries he had made about work for Hampton were “only recommendation calls.”