Sen. John Ensign is going on the offensive against the husband of the woman with whom he had an affair, charging that the man not only tried to shop the story to Fox News but also demanded large sums of money from Ensign himself.
“Within the past month, Doug Hampton's legal counsel made exorbitant demands for cash and other financial benefits on behalf of his client,” Ensign spokesman Tory Mazzola said in an email to POLITICO Friday. “Doug Hampton’s outrageous demand was referred to Sen. Ensign’s legal counsel, who is handling the matter going forward. “
Mazzola’s statement came just hours after the Las Vegas Sun published a June 11 letter Hampton – himself a former Ensign staffer — wrote to Fox News in which he accused the senator of “heinous” behavior that left his family in financial ruin.
Combined, the letter and the statement set the dueling storylines for an unfolding scandal. Hampton portrays the senator as a stalker whose “conduct and relentless pursuit of my wife led to our dismissal in April of 2008.” Mazzola portrays Ensign as a victim – a man forced to admit his sins by a greedy extortionist.
Ensign’s aggressive counter-attack underscores the political stakes.
The affair has already cost Ensign his post as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, the No. 4 spot in the GOP Senate leadership. Now it’s emboldening a potential challenger.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democratic congresswoman who represents Las Vegas, said Thursday that she hadn’t even considered running for the Senate in 2012, when Ensign will be up for reelection, but that the events of the last week – and the release of Hampton’s letter – have caused her to weigh whether to run.
“It created a calculation that wasn’t in the equation before,” Berkley said. “I never thought about it.
Berkley didn’t go as far as calling on Ensign to resign, but she came close.
“John is going to have to decide that for himself,” Berkley said of Ensign’s future. “I just think there is going to be more and more pressure on him to do the right thing. He’s going to decide for himself what the right thing is – decide what the right thing is for his family and for the state of Nevada and the people he represents. I think his ability to represent the state and the people who call Nevada home has been compromised dramatically.”
“I think he’s done himself irreconcilable harm - and frankly, hurt the state,” Berkley added. “We have a tough enough time representing Las Vegas, because of all the preconceived notions. When my colleagues come up to me and talk about this, it’s nothing more than a joke. And they’re surprised that anybody in Nevada should be upset because that’s the way we do business – and that’s indefensible. This is bad on so many levels – it’s very unfortunate situation.”
Rep. Dina Titus, a freshman Democrat who also represents a part of Las Vegas, was less strident in her remarks about Ensign, but she said that Hampton’s letter to Fox raised the prospect for her that Engisn had engaged in sexual harassment – which she called “offensive.”
“And if that turns out to be the case, as was suggested in that letter, then I think that should be pursued as unacceptable behavior,” Titus said. “But I’m not calling for him to resign or anything until all the facts are out there.”
Hampton said in his letter – which Fox says it did not receive until this week – that he confronted Ensign about the affair with his wife in a face-to-face encounter in February 2008, with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) present. Despite that confrontation, Hampton said, Ensign continued his “heinous conduct and pursuit” of Cynthia Hampton through August 2008.
The Hamptons’ lawyer, who said earlier this week that the couple did “everything” they could to keep the affair quiet, has declined to discuss the matter further.
Republicans so far have said that there is no reason for Ensign to resign.
“I think we’re going to show a little decency and respect for everybody involved and I’m just not going to comment,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas.), the head of the Republicans’ Senate campaign committee.
Asked if the revelations about Ensign will make it harder for Republicans to oust the other Nevada senator – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – in 2010, Cornyn laughed and said, “As compared to how easy it is now?”
Turning more serious, he said: “I don’t know the answer to that.”
A top Senate GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that with Ensign out of the leadership, “it’s up to him to make the next move. It’s not a leadership matter anymore, but a Nevada matter.”
Ensign has few public defenders at home – or at least few willing to go on the record in a saga that seems to change by the hour. Sue Lowden, head of the Nevada GOP, was unavailable for comment on Friday following the release of the Hampton letter to Fox, as were other prominent Nevada Republicans.
Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican who was suffered through his own sex scandal, told the Associated Press Friday that he feels “very badly” for Ensign and his wife, but he declined to discuss the senator’s political future.
"Those are decisions that John and his family are going to have to make, not the governor of Nevada," Gibbons said.
Richard Ziser, a GOP social conservative who unsuccessfully challenged Reid in 2004, said the affair raises questions about his long-term viability.
“Obviously, it’s quite disappointing to hear all the details coming out,” Ziser said. “From the social conservative point of view, he has a terrific voting record. . . . But you hate to put yourself in a position of continuing to be real supportive when he’s done what he’s done.”
In the meantime, Ensign's problems have made staffers at the Republican Policy Committee nervous about their jobs.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stopped by the Russell Senate office building Wednesday and visited with staff on the Policy Committee after Ensign's resignation. McConnell praised their work and told them it was valued by GOP senators.
“He basically communicated that he understood their uneasiness but emphasized that it will soon pass,” a GOP aide said. “He told them he will urge continuity to the next chairman when that person is elected.”