Exclusive: Doug Hampton Speaks Out on Sen. Ensign's Affair With His Wife
Fmr. Staffer Reveals New Details in Affair; Accuses Sen. Coburn of Playing Negotiating Role
By CYNTHIA MCFADDEN, MELINDA ARONS and
Nov. 23, 2009
Doug Hampton, the former co-chief of staff to Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., spoke exclusively to "Nightline," about the affair between his former boss and his wife, Cynthia "Cindy" Hampton, also a former Ensign employee.
In the "Nightline" interview, Hampton provides astonishing new details about the affair and its many repercussions, including the end of a close 20-year friendship between the two families and the loss of the Hamptons' jobs.
"Lost my job. Lost my best friend. Nearly lost my wife," he said on the ripple effect of Ensign's affair.
Hampton makes allegations of hypocrisy, hubris -- cover-ups and maybe even crimes -- that have destroyed lives and could destroy Ensign's political career.
"It's hard to comprehend what's still taking place, what's going on this moment, with regards to the unraveling of the choices and the decisions that John's made," Hampton said.
Hampton said he's finally speaking out because he wants Ensign held accountable.
"I think there are missing pieces to what's been reported," he said. "Important for people to understand what the senator has done. ... The truth needs to come out."
Ensign Once the Rising GOP Star
Ensign was a rising star in the Republican Party. During his second term, there were already rumblings that the junior senator from Nevada might be the party's next best hope for president.
Ensign was an attractive candidate: good-looking, from a wealthy Las Vegas family, with impeccable conservative credentials. "Born again" in college, Ensign was a loud and leading voice for lawmakers adhering to strict Christian family values. He argued passionately for the Federal Marriage Amendment and publicly condemned President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, when he was accused of propositioning another man in a public restroom.
But suddenly, in June 2009, Ensign announced he had had an affair.
"It's absolutely the worst thing I've ever done in my life," he said at the June 16 press conference.
Confession made, Ensign took no questions. But almost immediately, questions were raised, as it turned out the affair was with Cindy Hampton, Ensign's campaign treasurer -- and his best friend's wife.
Affair Shatters 20 Year Friendship
The friendship between Ensign and Hampton went back 20 years; neighbors in the same tony Las Vegas suburb, the two families dined together, vacationed together, and their kids attended a private Christian school together.
Both Hampton and Ensign were people of intense faith, praying together at the Meadows Fellowship Church.
In 2006, Ensign asked Hampton to serve as his co-chief of staff in the Senate. Despite Hampton's utter lack of political experience, he said Ensign wanted him there as he walked the corridors of power -- a brother in Christ who would keep him grounded.
"The intimacy of our relationship, the longevity, would be important for John as he continued to grow in political stature. And he asked me to come on to join him in Washington," Hampton said. "Walk alongside in whatever capacity possible. ... Same kind of model that Jesus exhibited in the Bible."
Hampton was thrilled at the opportunity to serve alongside his best friend.
"It was a dream," he said. "I mean, I floated."
But the dream turned into a nightmare during Christmas of 2006, though at the time Hampton didn't know it. His boss and best friend invited Cindy to the White House Christmas party, to which Hampton had no objection.
"An opportunity to meet President Bush and his wife and to go to the White House is an extraordinary opportunity," he said.
But as it turns out, the night was life-altering for Ensign.
"[Ensign] said that's when it all began. He said that's when something changed in terms of his view, look, fascination, attraction to Cindy as a person, was the White House Christmas party," Hampton said.
Hampton said to his knowledge Cindy never looked at Ensign romantically.
"[Cindy] admired John. She was a close friend, he was the boss," he said. "A brother. Cindy always looked at John like a brother."
But exactly one year later, during Christmas of 2007, Hampton made a devastating discovery when he intercepted a text message Ensign had sent to his wife Cindy, that said: "How wonderful it is. Can't believe it's like a kid. Scared, but excited."
"I have a little out of body experience. I confront John, I think he genuinely believes I'm going to knock him out," Hampton said. "John is panicked he doesn't know what to do. He's like a kid, he's just scrambling. ... Cindy is speechless. She's absolutely in shock."
On Christmas Eve, Hampton confronted Ensign at his home when both families were present.
"The kids know. We know. Ten of us meet at John and Darlene's and I say, 'Now, what do you want to do, what are we going to do? Are we going to destroy each others' lives, is this it? What is this?' 'Oh gosh, no, no, no, this is just the biggest mistake we've ever made. We do not want this.' John cries like a kid. Puts his head in his hands, cries like a little boy."
Hampton said he heard remorse and panic in his old friend's voice, but now believes it was disingenuous.
Hampton: Ensign 'Fixated on Cindy'
Though both couples attempted to work it out, by February 2008, Hampton believed that Ensign and his wife were still having an affair.
"I think he's absolutely at this time pursuing her," Hampton said. "He's absolutely fixated on Cindy."
Hampton said his suspicions were confirmed when he accompanied Ensign on a congressional trip to Iraq. According to Hampton, Ensign was visibly irked by him.
"He was angry that we were in the circumstances that we were in. I was not a person that he wanted to see anymore on a daily basis," Hampton said.
During the Iraq trip, Hampton subsequently discovered that Ensign was calling Cindy morning and night.
"I was having problems with my phone, so I asked John, 'Hey, can I use your phone, I want to call Cindy.' He said, sure. Instead of scrolling to Cindy Hampton he scrolls to Aunt Judy. Like covert, cover-up, for Cindy Hampton. And then I realize, wow, wow, something is seriously wrong," he said.
Hampton Claims Sen. Coburn Played Negotiating Role
After returning from Iraq, Hampton said he turned to the one place he was sure could help him -- a secretive Christian group known as "The Fellowship." At the time, Ensign was living at the C Street House, a meeting place run by the Fellowship, which doubles as a residence for several evangelical lawmakers.
Hampton said he was not advised by the Fellowship to cover up the affair, but instead to "be cool." He said they felt they needed a more powerful voice to confront Ensign, and reached out to C Street resident and conservative leader Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
"'We need help. We're not big enough,'" Hampton said, recalling his conversation with the Fellowship. "'[Ensign] is a United States Senator and so even though we're friends, we're close, we're brothers in Christ, we need power to confront this: Sen. Tom Coburn, the hit man."
Hampton said that on Valentine's Day 2008, the C Street leadership and Coburn helped him confront Ensign.
"Tom really kind of takes the helm," Hampton recalled. "Oh, he's smoking. He is one upset man. ... And then John kind of breaks down, [saying] 'I made a mistake, I really screwed up.'"
Hampton provided "Nightline" with a letter, which he says the group at C Street forced Ensign to write and send to Cindy, ending the relationship.
"I used you for my own pleasure...," Ensign wrote. "... God never intended for us to do this."
But according to Hampton, within hours after writing the letter, Ensign called Cindy.
"I mean he is just livid," Hampton said of Ensign. "[He said], 'They made me write a letter, but it's not how I feel. ... Doug has exposed me.' As though somehow I'm the bad guy in this."
Hampton Says Ensign Took Advantage of Cindy
When Hampton saw Ensign the following weekend, Hampton said the senator opened up to him about his feelings for wife Cindy.
"He's in love with her," Hampton said. "[Ensign said,] 'I know what was said, and I'm not going to apologize for how I feel. Not only am I going to pursue the relationship, you can't work for me anymore.' ... He almost said it like, you've made me uncomfortable."
Hampton said he believes Ensign abused his power by pursuing the affair.
"He took advantage of his power and his position," he said, though he admits Cindy isn't blameless for participating in the relationship.
"I'm not saying that she wasn't struggling with her own feelings and her own attraction to John and her own demons," Hampton said.
Cindy Hampton would not confirm or deny her husband's allegation that Ensign took advantage of her, but the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) in Washington, has asked the Senate to investigate whether Ensign is guilty of sexual harassment -- a violation of congressional ethics rules since Cindy was working for Ensign at the time the affair began.
"Did Sen. Ensign sexually harass Cynthia Hampton by conducting an affair with his employee?" asked CREW's executive director Melanie Sloan, in an interview with "Nightline." "And then, did he violate sexual harassment law by firing Cynthia Hampton and her husband when the affair ended?"
Ensign's $96,000 Check: Severance or a Gift?
By April 2008, Ensign had fired both Doug and Cindy Hampton. But not before what Hampton saw as one final humiliation.
"He called me and said you need to come back here I need to throw you a party. If you don't come back here and let me throw you a party, people will suspect something," Hampton said.
Hampton said Ensign presented him with a gift at the going-away party -- a crystal replica of the Capitol with an inscription that reads: "To the best AA on Capitol Hill."
Days later, the Hamptons received a $96,000 check made out to Doug, Cindy and two of their children from Ensign's father -- a wealthy casino mogul.
The Ensign family has said the $96,000 was a gift and not severance, and that they complied with all the applicable laws. A family spokesman -- denying a payoff -- called it part of a "pattern of generosity" made "out of concern for the well-being of longtime family friends during a difficult time."
Hampton told "Nightline" the opposite, saying it was "crystal clear" that the $96,000 was, in fact, severance and not a gift.
"Crystal clear," Hampton said. "I took notes. I've shared those notes. They're well documented. They were clearly what he deemed as severance."
The Ensign family says the gift complied with tax rules. But, if the check was indeed severance, Ensign may have violated campaign finance laws by not revealing it.
"You have to wonder how is it that the senator's parents came in and paid his former mistress $96,000 as a gift out of the goodness of their hearts. That just really doesn't make sense," Sloan said. "Of course it was a severance payment. ... The failure to report it may well be a felony punishable by five years in jail."
Ensign has said that the check was not severance.
Hampton Alleges Ensign Launched His Lobbying Career
Having lost his dream job, Hampton needed work. He said Ensign called him offering him a new career: lobbying John Ensign. Only one problem: that's illegal. Federal ethics laws prohibit Senate staffers from lobbying the Senate within a year of leaving. And it may well be illegal for a senator to help them do it.
Hampton said Ensign himself helped him line up clients -- which Sloan points out is also a felony.
"That's pretty serious for a senator to be allegedly involved in at least two felonies," Sloan said.
Hampton claims once he had clients, Ensign instructed him to deal directly with his then-chief of staff. Hampton provided ABC News with e-mails which he says prove his claims.
"John Ensign was perfectly aware that it was going down exactly how he wanted it to go," Hampton said.
When asked if there was any doubt if Ensign understood that ethics laws were being broken, Hampton said, "There's no doubt. Why would a client hire Doug Hampton if he didn't think he would have access to John Ensign's office? It's the only reason I would hire him."
When asked if he understood that his comments could make him criminally libel, Hampton responded, "It's the truth. And it's under duress. And it's under the power and abuse and orchestration of a senator who controlled our lives."
Hampton: Ensign Attended Meeting with Allegiant Air
Hampton points to one meeting in particular to back up his claim. In March, his client, a Nevada airline called Allegiant Air, asked him to set up a meeting with the Secretary of Transportation. After the meeting, he said the group had lunch with Ensign in the Senate dining room.
But Hampton's career as a lobbyist only lasted a year before he was let go. Unemployed and financially strained, Hampton's lawyer sought $8.5 million in what he calls "restitution" from Ensign. Hampton claims it was none other than Coburn who personally took charge of the negotiations.
Hampton recounted the conversation to "Nightline."
"Tom Coburn said, 'What I would do, Doug, if I was you, is I would have them buy your home, give you a million bucks so you can start over, and that is what I am willing to help you negotiate,'" he said. "John said, 'No can do, not going to happen.' [Coburn] volunteered to help. He called me. And he recommended a significant number as one that he would float to the Ensigns."
Coburn originally denied he was ever part of brokering a settlement. In a statement to "Nightline" responding to this story, Coburn's spokesman John Hart confirmed that he did offer to help Hampton in the negotiation, but says the conversations were "initiated by Doug, not ... Coburn."
An Ensign spokesperson suggested Hampton was trying to blackmail the senator, claiming he made "exorbitant demands for cash." Hampton denied ever trying to extort Ensign.
Coburn's statement to "Nightline" shed some light on the allegations about blackmail and payoffs.
"Some reports have implied Doug was attempting to extort money from Sen. Ensign, while other reports have suggested Sen. Ensign was offering Doug hush money," the statement reads. "Neither explanation is accurate."
Coburn told ABC News' George Stephanopolous on "This Week" that he did not offer to broker the deal.
"There was no negotiation," he said. But Coburn acknowledged that he had worked to "bring two families to a closure of a very painful episode."
In June 2009, Hampton did try to go public with news of the affair, writing to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. Though Fox didn't go with the story, Ensign hastily called a press conference to announce the affair.
Hampton: 'This Is About Preserving C Street'
Hampton said he feels his friends at C Street have abandoned him by choosing to close ranks around Ensign. When asked if they'd turned their backs on him, Hampton replied, "That was really clear."
When asked if those at C Street think the rules don't apply to them, Hampton laughed and said, "[They] think the consequences don't apply. Those need to be dealt with differently. Because of the responsibility. Because of pressure. Because of the work that needs to be done. ...This is about preserving John, preserving the Republican party, this is about preserving C Street. These men care about themselves and their own political careers, period."
Hampton said he strongly believes Ensign should "resign immediately." But Ensign has said he has no plans to give up his seat.
"This is Washington, D.C., and you never really know how things are going to play out, and given the mess that the Justice Department is and how the Senate Ethics Committee has almost never met a scandal it couldn't avoid taking action on. You really can't have any faith that Ensign will eventually pay," Sloan said.
In a statement, a spokesperson said: "I truly wish that I could publicly respond to each one of Doug Hampton's allegations. They are full of half truths and untruths. I will cooperate with any investigation because I have not violated any law or Senate ethics rule. If Doug Hampton violated federal law and rules, I did not advise him to do so, I did not suggest that he do so, and I did not cooperate with his doing so."
Hampton said he has not been contacted by the Department of Justice, the Senate Ethics Committee or the FBI in regards to an investigation. He said it seems like these agencies are "not really interested in getting to the bottom of this."
"It's interesting -- when you are campaigning, boy, you gotta talk about everything," he said. "When you are elected, you don't have to talk about anything."