When U.S. Sen. John Ensign's parents heard he was having an affair with his best friend's wife, they gave his mistress and her family $96,000, a lawyer for the Nevada Republican said Thursday.
The April 2008 payments to Cindy Hampton, her husband, Doug, and two of their children were described as "gifts" by Paul Coggins, Ensign's Dallas-based attorney, in a statement to the media Thursday. As such, they were completely legal, Coggins asserted.
The money came around the time Cindy and Doug Hampton both left Ensign's payroll.
"After the Senator told his parents about the affair, his parents decided to make the gifts out of concern for the well-being of longtime family friends during a difficult time," Coggins said.
"The gifts are consistent with a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family to the Hamptons and others."
The lawyer did not return phone calls seeking elaboration on that statement Thursday.
The statement came on the heels of a televised interview in which Doug Hampton described Ensign as relentlessly pursuing Cindy Hampton from December 2007 to August 2008 -- despite being repeatedly confronted by friends, family and political advisers who warned him that he risked destroying his career and both families.
A spokesman for Ensign previously called Hampton's statements "consistently inaccurate." Ensign's Senate staff declined to comment further Thursday.
In the second segment of the two-part interview with local journalist Jon Ralston, which aired Thursday, Doug Hampton said the senator forced the Hamptons out of their positions on his campaign and U.S. Senate staffs and gave Cindy Hampton a "severance" that well exceeded $25,000. Hampton declined to specify the amount.
Hampton said on the program, "Face to Face" on Las Vegas ONE, that he did not consider the money restitution for Ensign's actions.
"John never paid money to acknowledge the number of things that I have really talked about here with regards to John," Hampton said. "This is just purely like severance, right thing to do, 'Hey, it didn't work out, hope you guys have a nice life, I'm going to go on.' "
Doug Hampton repeatedly expressed dismay in the interview that his wife got a severance but he did not.
Coggins, the lawyer, said the payments from the parents were not a severance.
"None of the gifts came from campaign or official funds, nor were they related to any campaign or official duties," he said. "Senator Ensign has complied with all applicable laws and Senate ethics rules."
Doug Hampton, 47, earned about $245,000 over 18 months as a top Senate staffer to Ensign, 51, while Cindy, 46, worked as a bookkeeper for Ensign's re-election campaign and his political action committee, Battle Born PAC.
Cindy Hampton's pay at the two committees began around $1,900 a month, then doubled during the time of the affair. Echoing what Ensign's staff has asserted, Doug Hampton said in the interview that her responsibilities had increased and the raise wasn't related to the dalliance.
Both Doug and Cindy Hampton left Ensign's employ at the end of April 2008. Doug Hampton said in the interview that they were forced out because of pressure from Ensign's wife, Darlene, to remove them from the senator's orbit.
"He told me -- basically at the same time he said, 'I'm in love with your wife' -- 'You can't work for me anymore,' " Doug Hampton said.
Ensign then prevailed upon his chief political adviser, Mike Slanker, to give Doug Hampton a job at Slanker's Las Vegas-based consulting company, November Inc., Hampton said.
It was the end of April 2008, and there had been "a big encounter in the Ensign home between me, John and Darlene, where John just readily admitted ... I did this," Hampton said. Just as he had done in February, Ensign apologized and vowed to change, but then went right back to pursuing Cindy Hampton, he said.
"John needs to go address some things, and he needs to take some responsibility, and he needs to make some restitution and do some things right," Hampton said. "We were employees, not fired but orchestrated, asked to leave, ushered out, however you have it -- a powerful man changed our employment life forever."
Hampton said he and Slanker confronted Ensign about the affair in Ensign's Washington office at the headquarters of the National Republican Senatorial Committee around that time. Slanker served as the organization's political director while Ensign was the chairman.
Slanker, who has previously denied he knew about the affair, did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.
Slanker has served as the senator's political mastermind since Ensign's unsuccessful 1998 race against Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and formed November Inc. together with other Ensign campaign and Senate veterans.
At November Inc., Hampton wasn't able to sign up enough consulting clients to make an adequate income, he said. So Ensign called up his friend Maurice Gallagher, the CEO of Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, and helped Hampton secure the position he still holds at the airline, vice president of government affairs.
Hampton said in the interview that Ensign appeared to believe he could keep up his relationship with Cindy Hampton as long as everyone was provided for. Doug Hampton, in the interview, repeatedly defends his wife as blameless in the face of the senator's unwelcome advances.
"He (Ensign) just felt like, 'If I do apples for apples here and get you set up ... This is how I feel about her, this is what I want, I'm sorry, I'm not going to apologize for it.' And he just felt like if he handled everything correctly or right that it would just go on that way and it would just be fine and he could just go on with his life," Doug Hampton said.
Ensign's father, Mike, is a wealthy former casino executive. In 2005, as chairman and CEO of the Mandalay Resort Group, he helped engineer MGM Mirage's $7.9 billion merger with Mandalay.
Mike Ensign netted nearly $150 million in stock sales at the time of the merger and just before, according to Securities and Exchange Commission records.
Friends have described Mike and Sharon Ensign, the senator's parents, as fiercely private and protective of their family. Sharon was a poor single mother in Reno when she met Mike Ensign, who adopted her three children, including John, when they married.
If Mike and Sharon Ensign each wrote four $12,000 checks totaling $96,000, as Ensign's lawyer described, they would have fallen under the $12,000 threshold over which gifts must be declared for tax purposes.
Ensign says the affair ended in August 2008 and that he and his wife then underwent counseling, emerging with their relationship strengthened. Doug Hampton says the affair actually ended earlier, but that Ensign's pursuit of Cindy Hampton continued through August 2008.
After that, there was a period of quiet, Hampton said, but he was bothered by the idea that he had not been made whole, and around May of this year he decided to approach Ensign through a lawyer to see if a settlement could be made.
"The magnitude of what has happened to our life has settled in," Hampton said. "We realize that we are going backward each month financially. ... I just really felt like maybe, some time had passed, that if I got legal representation and they talked to John's legal representation and we handled this thing ... I wanted to do the right thing. Families involved, kids involved, lives involved. Look at it today, look what's going on. I wanted to get people involved and say, 'Hey, let's take a look at this, and maybe there can be some restitution.' "
But Ensign's camp, Hampton said, "basically said, 'No, it's not going to happen. That'll never happen.' "
Hampton previously acknowledged that he thought he was entitled to "millions." Rebuffed, he then wrote a letter to Fox News, imploring anchor Megyn Kelly to expose Ensign.
Hampton says he also wrote to former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a friend of Ensign's who is now a Fox News contributor. Hampton believes that's how Ensign found out about his attempt to go public and preempted it with a hastily staged Las Vegas news conference on June 16.
Now, Hampton appears to be seeking further legal help. Pressed in the interview about whether a lawsuit was in the works, he made a vague reference to "the libel or the slander," adding, "I need a lot of concrete help from some people who say, 'This is how I would structure it, this is what I would do, this is how I would handle it.'"
Ensign's staff previously called Hampton's attempts to negotiate a settlement an "outrageous demand."
As Hampton describes it, Ensign ignored those who tried to dissuade him from his self-destructive path, then tried to turn the tables on those he had wronged.
"For someone to pursue that, for someone to not quit, letters, be confronted, be confronted by friends, be confronted by another U.S. senator, constantly people approaching him saying, 'This is a career-ending, this is really damaging stuff, can we help you?' This gets turned into blackmail, extortion, Doug's trying to treat me bad? I don't understand that."
The senator, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has acknowledged he advised Ensign to end the affair and fix his marriage in a February 2008 confrontation at the Washington house they share.
But Coburn told reporters Thursday that he didn't tell Ensign to pay off the Hamptons, as Doug Hampton claims, nor did he have Ensign write a contrite letter to Cindy Hampton.
"I was never present when a letter was written, never made any assessment of paying anybody anything," Coburn told reporters outside his Washington office Thursday morning, according to Politico. "Those are untruths. Those are absolute untruths."
Coburn said Hampton "is in error, and he's manipulating the situation and you are all buying it."
Coburn declined Thursday to detail the advice he gave Ensign, suggesting that he could not be forced to testify about their conversations because Coburn is a medical doctor and ordained deacon.
"I'm not going to go into that," he said. "That's privileged communications. I'm never going to talk about that with anybody ... not to a court of law, not to an Ethics Committee."
Ensign already faces Federal Election Commission and Senate Ethics Committee complaints from a Washington-based government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, for the circumstances surrounding the affair.
On Thursday, the group called on the Justice Department to undertake a criminal investigation into the payments to Doug and Cindy Hampton. The demand came before the revelation of the payments from Ensign's parents.
Melanie Sloan, the group's executive director, said the lawyer's description of the "gifts" only deepened the need for a probe to untangle the money issues surrounding the extramarital affair and underscored the need for the Justice Department to take up the matter.
"This does not change the call for an investigation," Sloan said. "What we know now is there are a lot of unanswered questions and the best way to get to the bottom of the unanswered questions is to get before a grand jury."
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined comment Thursday.
Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report. Contact reporter Molly Ball at mball @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.