No. 9: John Ensign

Nevada Senator John Ensign joined an exclusive club in 2011. Not the cheating politician circle: News of his adultery with his best friend’s wife came to light in 2009, and that club has too many members to count. Not the last-man-standing circle, in which apologetic sinners now stand alone, with the scorned wife nowhere to be seen.

When Ensign announced his resignation April 21, less than two years after his apology, the Senate Ethics Committee was concluding that, had Ensign stuck around, he would have been expelled. That public censure, the National Journal pointed out, put him in rare company with the likes of Bob Packwood (1992). In fact, reports, “Since 1789, the Senate has expelled only fifteen of its entire membership. Of that number, fourteen were charged with support of the Confederacy during the Civil War.”

The committee had already done a rare thing, outsourcing its query to special counsel in February. Ensign’s sins didn’t lay in the lubricious details, of which there were plenty. As the report put it, “Whether a person is unfaithful to his or her spouse is generally the couples [sic] own business.” Expulsion would have resulted from Ensign’s “web of deceit” and “violations of law,” laid out in 67 very damning pages. The committee recommended the case be re-opened with the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission.

Ensign scandal timeline
Ensign once carried the label of “possible 2012 presidential candidate.” In retrospect, that designation looked more like a curse: The scandal broke the same year South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford imploded, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal got an A for “awkward” for his State of the Union rebuttal, and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards was dodging reports of fathering a child out of wedlock.

Even without criminal allegations, the Ensign affair had some outsized elements: He consorted with his wife’s high-school friend and his employee, Cynthia Hampton, who was married to his best pal, fellow Promise Keeper, and co-chief of staff, Doug. The Senate report read like a dime-store novel: Ensign’s persistence in the affair even after a Christmas 2007 confrontation; multiple interventions from the Family fundamentalist group; the Hamptons’ fear of losing their jobs; that $96,000 payout; tales of co-dependent patronage and vengeful blackmail.

Politics as unusual
In January 2011, Ensign was still scheduling fundraisers for his senatorial re-election campaign. The cuckolded Hampton wanted none of that, and neither did Republicans leery of tipping the political scales to Democrats. Pressure led to Ensign’s resignation, although he stuck to his legal innocence:

“While I stand behind my firm belief that I have not violated any law, rule, or standard of conduct of the Senate, and I have fought to prove this publicly, I will not continue to subject my family, my constituents, or the Senate to any further rounds of investigation, depositions, drawn out proceedings, or especially public hearings.”

He pointed to dropped Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Election Committee probes, but a special Reuters report noted that Ensign handed over “more than 1,000 sensitive emails” to Senate investigators that neither department had seen. The revelation brought up two questions: Why did Ensign turn over emails after holding out for 18 months, and why did the DOJ end its probe before seeing them? Ensign said he had nothing to hide, although committee investigators saw proof of wrongdoing. For the DOJ, a senior official told Reuters that shutting down early made the department look bad.

The Ensign defense
Looking bad doesn’t mean re-opening the case, although the Ensign fallout may persist. Dean Heller, who slipped into Ensign’s seat, faces a 2012 election with difficult odds and a possible strategy to taint him with Ensign’s sins. Doug Hampton faces a 2012 trial for illegal lobbying. (The former aide, who once earned $14,000 a month, can afford only a public defender.)

The DOJ case against former Democratic hopeful John Edwards — whose own affair led to criminal charges — might portend a case against Ensign. After all, Edwards’s attorney invoked his former senatorial peer and argued that since Ensign hadn’t been indicted, Edwards shouldn’t be either. The gambit didn’t work.

The Yahoo! Year in Review editorial lead for five years running, Vera H-C Chan dissects news events, pop-culture idiosyncrasies, and online behavior to probe the “why” behind what’s hot online. On Yahoo!, her articles can be found in News, TV, Movies, and her Shine blog Fast-Talking Dame. Across the Net, there are remnants of contributions to a cultural travel guide, martial arts encyclopedia, movie criticism, business profiles, and A&E/features reporting.