As unbelievable as it might be from today's perspective, there was a lot of presidential campaign buzz in May 2009 surrounding a trip Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., was planning to the early caucus state of Iowa.
Today, Ensign is no longer even a senator and, worse still, faces possible criminal charges in the wake of a scathing report issued Thursday by his former colleagues on Capitol Hill. Included are details not only about the former veterinarian's affair with his best friend's wife but his alleged attempts to cover it up. The report reads like a criminal investigation at times with a narrative that recalls a sleazy dime-store novel at other points. Read the full report.
"It is a cautionary tale," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Ethics Committee, said in announcing the panel's findings on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, a highly unusual move. "It shows that our actions, all of them, have consequences."
If Ensign, 53, had not resigned earlier this month, Boxer said, he could have faced expulsion from the Senate, the harshest penalty possible. Political observers suggested that Ensign resigned to avoid such a fate.
But his resignation did not stop the panel from concluding its 22-month investigation and releasing a report that divulged the alleged details of the extramarital affair Ensign had with Cindy Hampton, the wife of his former top aide, Doug Hampton. The affair had occurred while Doug Hampton -- Ensign's best friend -- was employed by the senator, according to the report.
The Senate ethics panel alleged that the Nevada Republican tried to cover up the sex scandal, made false statements to the Federal Election Commission and violated campaign finance laws. The panel has now referred the case to both the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission.
It will not be the first time the Justice Department examines the case. An attorney for Ensign last year said he was "no longer a target" of a previous Justice Department probe into the matter.
The alleged details outlined in the new ethics report tell the story of a scandal that rocked Capitol Hill and left multiple families in tatters.
Doug Hampton learned of his wife's affair with his boss two days before Christmas 2007 when he discovered a text message from Ensign to his wife that said, "How wonderful it is. ... Scared, but excited," according to the report.
Among other allegations in the report: Doug Hampton then confronted his wife and called Ensign to let him know he was on to the affair. He even ended up chasing Ensign in an airport parking lot. The day before Christmas, the two couples met in the senator's office, where Ensign wept and apologized. Then the families met with their children.
And then they celebrated Christmas together the next day, according to the report. But the affair apparently didn't stop there.
Ensign told Cindy Hampton he wanted to marry her in early 2008 while they were attending the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, according to the report. Doug Hampton took a trip abroad that year to Iraq and Afghanistan with the senator, where another incident occurred, as Hampton described to ABC New's ''Nightline."
"I asked John, 'Hey, can I use your phone? I want to call Cindy.' He says, 'Sure.' Instead of scrolling to Cindy Hampton, he scrolls to 'Aunt Judy,' like covert, cover-up for Cindy Hampton, and I realize, wow, wow, something is seriously wrong," Hampton said.
Serious Legal Consequences for Ensign?
Ensign's spiritual adviser, Tim Coe, and others later confronted him at his Washington, D.C., home, according to the Senate report. He agreed to end the affair. But Hampton saw the senator's car and his wife's car in a hotel parking lot two days later. Hampton called Coe.
Coe called Ensign, telling the senator, "I know exactly where you are. I know exactly what you are doing. Put your pants on and go home.'"
Ensign initially said he would not leave the hotel room, telling Coe, "I can't, I love her," according to the report.
Behind such behavior lurk possibly serious legal consequences for Ensign, including allegations that he violated civil and criminal laws, made false or misleading statements, ordered shredded documents and the destruction of other evidence, and used hush money.
The report alleges that Coe and others asked Doug Hampton, "What is it going to take to get you out of town?"
Ensign told constituents to hire Hampton as a lobbyist, the report says.
After one "prominent Nevada constituent" declined to hire Hampton, Ensign told his chief of staff to "jack him up to high heaven'" and tell him he was "cut off" from Ensign "and could not contact him any longer," according to the report.
In his farewell speech May 2, Ensign apologized to his Senate colleagues and to his family.
"Unfortunately, I was blind to how arrogant and self-centered I had become," he said. "I did not recognize that I thought mostly of myself. This is how dangerous the feeling of power and adulation can be."
He left Capitol Hill the next day, replaced in the Senate by Dean Heller, ending what Boxer called "a sad chapter" in Senate history.