Ensign tells Nevadans he's sorry

FERNLEY -- Sen. John Ensign said Wednesday that his affair with a friend's wife was different from former President Bill Clinton's affair with an intern in the White House because Clinton committed a felony when he lied about it to a grand jury.

"I haven't done anything legally wrong," the Nevada Republican said.

"President Clinton stood right before the American people and he lied to the American people," Ensign said. "You remember that famous day he lied to the American people, plus the fact I thought he committed perjury. That's why I voted for the articles of impeachment."

Ensign made the remarks before being introduced to a standing ovation from about 100 people at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in rural Fernley, about 40 miles southeast of Reno.

Ensign opened his speech by acknowledging what he called a "distraction."

"I think it would be inappropriate to start any other way than to say I'm sorry," he said. "I've said I'm sorry. I can't say I'm sorry enough. I made a big mistake in my life, and I apologize once again to all of you."

The luncheon was Ensign's first public appearance in his home state since acknowledging in June that he had an extramarital affair with former campaign aide Cindy Hampton.

Ensign resigned as head of the Republican Policy Committee after acknowledging the affair, which lasted from December 2007 to August 2008. Hampton's husband, Doug, was Ensign's administrative assistant in his Washington Senate office, and the families were friends.

Ensign's attorney has said that the senator's parents paid the woman and her family $96,000 after learning of the affair. Doug Hampton has described the payment as an employment-related severance, which could have run afoul of campaign-finance laws, but Ensign's lawyer said it was a gift and therefore legal.

Ensign once called on Clinton to resign after his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky erupted in 1998, declaring: "The truth must come out."

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a Washington government watchdog group, has called for investigations into Ensign by the Senate Ethics Committee and the Federal Elections Commission.

Ensign said Wednesday that he can understand how some people might "have a problem" with the fact that he called for Clinton's resignation but won't resign himself.

"But if you look at the times ... I was in the House of Representatives but basically was sitting in judgment of the president evaluating the case. I was basically a jurist at that point. I thought there was a violation of a felony," he said.

Ensign said he never considered resigning from the Senate and is focused on fulfilling his six-year term.

"What we're trying to do is go around to people in the state of Nevada and tell them how sorry I am for what I did. But now I need to focus on earning their trust back by working harder than I've ever worked for them," he said. "There's no magic to hard work. It is literally focusing on what is important to Nevadans. Right now, the biggest issue Nevadans and the rest of the country face is health care."

Ensign spoke for about 30 minutes at the luncheon and answered a handful of questions submitted on cards. None was about the affair.

Later Wednesday, he toured a U.S. Forest Service project at Lake Tahoe aimed at thinning forests to reduce fuel loads in an effort to reduce wildfire threats.

Today, he is scheduled to host the 12th annual Tahoe Environmental Summit that Clinton and Vice President Al Gore first hosted in 1997.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal contributed to this report.