Sex, Lies and Hush Money

By Katherine Spillar

This is the story of an illicit sexual relationship between a powerful U.S. senator and his female campaign treasurer, and of the equally powerful male political figures who allegedly helped cover it up. It’s a story where so-called family values and religiosity meet abuse of power. And it’s the story of a handful of no-nonsense women watchdogs who have been trying to bring the culprits to justice.

The man at the center of this story is now-former U.S. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who earned a 100-percent approval rating from the “pro-family” Christian Coalition. He stepped down from Congress on May 3, just a day before he was to give a deposition under oath to the Senate Ethics Committee–which had spent nearly two years investigating his actions. On May 10, the committee issued its stunning report, detailing “substantial credible evidence” that Ensign had violated federal criminal and civil laws, including lying to federal investigators about illegal payments to the woman and her husband.

Still seated in Congress is another major player in the saga, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)–another powerful conservative Republican, who has advocated the death penalty for abortion providers. Coburn, whose name is throughout the report, may have played a central role in trying to negotiate a settlement with the woman’s husband (also an employee of Ensign’s)–though Coburn has denied this.

The cast of heroic women in this case is led by Melanie Sloan, executive director of the D.C. congressional watchdog group CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington). It filed ethics complaints against both Ensign and Coburn, alleging that the latter helped cover up the affair. Carol Elder Bruce, a well-regarded D.C. attorney hired as special counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee, authored the report that excoriated Ensign. And, finally, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)–chair of the Ethics Committee–ultimately won a unanimous bipartisan vote to refer the committee’s findings to the attorney general for possible criminal prosecution.

But significant questions remain. Why hasn’t the Justice Department prosecuted Ensign? Why hasn’t the Ethics Committee now turned its attention to Coburn’s role? In other words, why haven’t those men who so doggedly stand up for “family values” been brought to account for their not-just-hypocritical but possibly illegal behavior?

Special Counsel Bruce’s report to the Ethics Committee reads a bit like a cheap novel. In it, we learn that the woman Sen. Ensign had a sexual liaison with, Cynthia Hampton, worked for him as treasurer of his campaign committe and PAC. Her husband, Doug, was Ensign’s top administrative assistant in his Senate office–really, his co-chief of staff.

But the Hamptons had been more than just employees. Cynthia was Ensign’s wife Darlene’s friend from high school, and the two men met while dating their future wives. At the Ensign wedding, Cynthia was a bridesmaid. The Ensigns helped the Hamptons move from California to their Nevada neighborhood, providing tens of thousands of dollars to refinance an expensive house the Hamptons couldn’t quite afford. In addition, Ensign helped get both of them jobs in Nevada. The two couples sent their children to the same private school–with the Ensigns again assisting with tens of thousands of dollars in support. The families took vacations together, spent most Sundays together, and Doug and John played golf together several times a week.

Then, at some point in late 2007, Ensign began pursuing a sexual affair with Cynthia. This was certainly in opposition to the morality he espoused to the public, such as his 1998 call for President Bill Clinton’s resignation after a sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky, or his statement in favor of the anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment that “marriage is the cornerstone on which our society was founded.”

Moreover, it’s unlikely that this affair was truly consensual. Senator Ensign “just [wouldn’t] stop” and “kept calling and calling” and “would never take no for an answer,” explained Cynthia Hampton, according to the Ethics Committee report.

Eventually she gave in.

The Senate ethics report found “substantial credible evidence” that Ensign’s behavior constituted sexual harassment. It emphasized that Ensign had “enormous power” over Hampton and her husband, as they were both employed by him, and he ultimately forced them to leave his office because of the sexual relationship.

Doug Hampton found out about the liaison just a few weeks after it began and confronted Ensign (reportedly chasing him around an airport parking lot), and the senator and Ms. Hampton agreed the next day to end it. But on a trip with his boss to Iraq and Afghanistan in February of 2008, Hampton discovered that it was continuing. Not knowing what else to do, he reached out to a man he thought Ensign might listen to: Tim Coe. Coe is the son of Doug Coe, the powerful head of “The Family” (also known as the Fellowship Foundation), a secretive, mostly male, right-wing Christian fundamentalist group. Tim Coe recommended bringing fellow Family member Sen. Coburn into the discussion, describing him as a “higher authority, someone much bigger than me.”

According to the Ethics Committee report, both Coburn and Coe essentially took charge of ending the affair. Coburn helped convene a Valentine’s Day meeting between the senator and Doug Hampton, where Ensign reportedly cried and vowed to repent.

Two days later, Hampton saw Ensign’s car in a hotel parking lot and called Tim Coe again. Coe phoned the senator and told him, “I know exactly where you are. I know exactly what you are doing. Put your pants on and go home.”

As the cheap-romance plot thickened, Doug Hampton confronted Ensign again the next day. But this time, instead of being contrite, the senator told Hampton that he wanted to marry Cynthia and that Doug couldn’t work for him anymore. He would tell Cynthia that he wanted Doug out so that he could meet with her more easily–without his aide’s knowledge of his schedule. The affair continued sporadically for months.

By forcing out Doug Hampton–and soon after that Cynthia–Sen. Ensign would be leaving the Hamptons with no jobs and a large mortgage. That’s when talk of “transition finances” and a plan to get the Hamptons to move out of Nevada was formulated.

According to the Ethics Committee report, Tim Coe, who spearheaded the plan, said he considered Sen. Coburn part of the “team” to work out the “financial piece,” and that Coburn was supportive of the overall transition plan. Moreover, Coe explained that Doug Hampton thought Coburn could “deliver” Sen. Ensign’s father, the wealthy casino mogul Michael Ensign.

Excerpted from the Summer 2011 issue of Ms. To learn the rest of the story–how the illicit sexual relationship dragged on, Ensign’s efforts to set Doug Hampton up as a lobbyist despite the one-year “revolving door” ban for former Senate employees, and the plethora of alleged violations of federal criminal and civil laws that resulted, read the full story in the new issue of Ms. You’ll also learn more details on Coburn’s role. Ms. is calling for a full Senate Ethics Committee investigation into whether Coburn, too, may have broken federal law.

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Photo of John Ensign by United States Senate via Wikimedia Commons.


Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.