Responsibility goes both ways in Ensign scandal

There is no question Doug Hampton was seriously wronged.

The former top aide to disgraced ex-U.S. Sen. John Ensign lost his wife, his job and much of his dignity in the sex scandal that ultimately drove Ensign from office. And now that the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has succeeded in obtaining thousands of pages of documents from the Justice Department investigation of the case, Hampton is once again asking for justice.

For those who missed the sordid tale the first time around, here’s a summary: Ensign seduced Doug Hampton’s wife Cindy, who happened to be best friends with Ensign’s spouse, Darlene. Hampton found out and confronted Ensign, who promptly decided to fire Hampton from his government job working in Ensign’s office, and also to fire Cindy Hampton from her job keeping the books for Ensign’s various campaign accounts.

Hampton demanded Ensign make things right — Hampton was making a pretty good salary in Ensign’s employ — by setting him up with lobbying work, notwithstanding a law that bans former Senate employees from lobbying their old colleagues for one year after leaving office. But Ensign agreed, and arranged for his top campaign aide, Mike Slanker, to hire Hampton via Slanker’s company, November Inc. (Ensign initially did not tell Slanker the real reason for Hampton’s departure from the Senate.)

Hampton lobbied. Ensign took official actions based on that lobbying. It was clearly a conspiracy to violate federal law, and everybody might have gotten away with it if Ensign had been able to stay away from Cindy Hampton. He couldn’t. The affair continued, and Hampton decided to blow the whistle. Although Hampton shot high, trying to get the story on Fox News, he was betrayed by former Fox contributor and Ensign friend former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who tipped Ensign to Hampton’s desperate attempts for publicity. That prompted Ensign to confess the affair, and, about two years later, to resign, not coincidentally just before a Senate Ethics Committee hearing at which Ensign would have had to testify truthfully under oath about his role in the scandal.

In the end, Ensign escaped any sanction, but everybody else involved saw their lives affected in some way: Ensign’s parents, who paid the Hamptons a severance after they were fired by Ensign, had to pay a fine after the money was classified as an over-limit donation to Ensign’s PAC. His former chief of staff, John Lopez, left Washington, D.C. The Hamptons ultimately divorced. And Hampton was indicted and pled guilty to violating the cooling-off period law.

That was the end of it, until CREW pried those documents loose from the Justice Department, prompting Hampton to ask anew: Why me? The Review-Journal’s Eric Hartley had that interview last week. A few excerpts:

• “That’s just criminal,” he [Hampton] said in a lengthy interview last week, during which he grew emotional at times. “That’s just wrong that people perceive me as being involved in some kind of a swap or trade … for money because I found out John was having an affair. That’s just intolerable. That’s sad. That’s painful. That’s wrong.”

Except for one thing: By Hampton’s own admission, that’s exactly what happened. Instead of simply walking away from Ensign’s office and starting his life elsewhere, Hampton hounded Ensign to help set him with lobbying clients. And the only reason that Hampton would be of any value to those potential clients was his access to Ensign. Hampton knew that, and so did Ensign. (For that matter, so did the companies that Ensign solicited for business.) It’s undeniable that if Hampton was guilty of a crime then Ensign must be equally guilty, but it’s just as undeniable that Hampton was guilty of a crime.

• “Never has [Ensign] told the truth,” Hampton said. “Just walked away. Who does that?”

Well, Ensign, apparently. But how, after all this time, could Hampton still be surprised by Ensign’s conduct? According to reports that surfaced at the time, Ensign lied to Hampton, to Slanker, to his own roommates in a secretive Washington, D.C. townhouse, and spiritual advisers who tried to intervene to stop the affair, and even to Cindy Hampton in a letter he wrote under protest after an odd intervention in Washington, D.C. Why would the senator suddenly start telling the truth now?

• “He [Hampton] said he hasn’t worked since April 2013, when he was let go after a friend’s plastics company was sold to a German firm. He has applied for jobs, mostly in sales, through and other career sites.

“Hampton’s criminal record is an obvious red flag if someone Googles his name. But so is his résumé itself, he said: Why is someone who held such a senior government position sending out résumés for midlevel openings?

“‘I’m sure that I probably could go get a job at 7-Eleven. But why? Why has it come to that in my life?’”

One possible answer: Because Hampton confessed to committing crimes. In July 2009, on the KSNV Channel 3 show Face to Face with Jon Ralston, Hampton outlined the entire scheme in great detail, notwithstanding the fact that he was putting himself in criminal jeopardy by doing so. It’s very likely Hampton assumed his confession on the show would ensnare Ensign in legal trouble as well, and that Hampton couldn’t conceive of a world in which Ensign would skate. But Hampton took a calculated risk in detailing his crimes, and that risk ended up convicting him.

Another possible answer: Because Hampton pled guilty to the charges lodged against him. What did Hampton possibly think would happen when he went public with his tale of woe, or entered a guilty plea to a federal felony? Of course future employers may be wary. This was something that Hampton obviously didn’t consider when his understandable anger and desire for revenge led him to detail the lobbying scheme publicly, but is nonetheless a foreseeable consequence.

• One last line:

“Because a man was powerful enough to cover it up and lie, ‘Oh well?’ ” he said. “That’s what we’ve become.

“I know that’s the truth. I understand that. I’m not an idiot.

“But guess what? I walked the line. I’ve walked through this, and I get to talk. I get to ask these questions.”

Indeed, he does. And he should: No one should ever forget how despicable and sleazy the conduct of Ensign — a self-proclaimed Promise Keeper social conservative only too happy to pass judgment on others for their personal shortcomings — was in this situation.

But Hampton can’t ignore the fact that he moved from simply being a victim the moment he began negotiating with Ensign to get lobbying work. In that moment, he became a co-conspirator. And while it’s entirely unfair and a miscarriage of justice that Ensign likely won’t ever face legal consequences for his actions, Hampton must now learn to live with the consequences of his own actions, both in breaking the law and publicly confessing to it.

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