Sen. John Ensign caused his own problems. And as word emerged Thursday that the senator's wealthy parents gave his mistress and her family $96,000 after they'd heard he'd been having an affair with his best friend's wife, Nevadans who have viewed John Ensign as a decent man and appropriate representative began to feel like villagers under an artillery barrage, cringing as they wait to see when and where the next shell will fall.
The April 2008 payments to Cindy Hampton, her husband, Doug, and two of their children were described as "gifts" by Paul Coggins, Sen. Ensign's Dallas-based attorney, in a statement to the media Thursday. They were completely legal, Mr. Coggins asserted.
"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," Mr. Coggins said. "The gifts are consistent with a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family to the Hamptons and others."
Unfortunately, distributed in multiples of $12,000, they also appear "consistent with" hush money structured to fall just under tax reporting limits.
Doug Hampton, 47, earned about $245,000 over 18 months as a top Senate staffer to Sen. Ensign, 51, while his wife, Cindy, 46, worked as a bookkeeper for Sen. 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. Doug Hampton has said that her responsibilities had increased and the raise wasn't related to the extracurricular relationship.
Nonetheless, the Washington-based government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed complaints about the affair with the Federal Election Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee. On Thursday the group also called on the Justice Department to undertake a criminal investigation.
If tax dollars weren't misused, Sen. Ensign may survive, for now. But he has much hard work ahead of him to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of Nevada voters, who should be the final arbiters of his political fate.
He would have been wiser -- he would still be wise -- to address all aspects of this matter at once, rather than allowing revelations to drag out.
John Ensign has damaged himself and his family. But he has also damaged Nevadans, who have struggled to resist the blandishments of the welfare state, struggled to keep the Silver State a modestly free and prosperous refuge from the storms of profligacy, who deserve a senator who can focus his energies on representing their interests.
Sen. Ensign must now demonstrate to Nevadans that he can learn from his mistakes, rebuild his reputation for steadiness and straight talk, and most of all be an effective leader in the currently outnumbered resistance to big government and the systematic looting of the storehouses of private capital that have made America prosperous and great.
He starts from square one.
He had better start right now.