In John Ensign Scandal, the Quieter Side of Las Vegas Has Tawdry Tendencies, Too

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

LAS VEGAS -- The high ground here is held by Summerlin, an almost perfectly planned community inhabited by some 100,000 people. Among them are the once-close families of John Ensign, Nevada's junior senator, and Doug Hampton, formerly one of his top aides.

Immaculate and pricey, Summerlin was named for the grandmother of Howard Hughes, that bizarre billionaire who, while acquiring vast tracts that would become the fastest-growing city in the country, helped to cement Las Vegas as a destination for the baser diversions. Numerous lots in the development command views of the Strip, shimmering on the valley floor below. But the 31 villages of Summerlin orient more toward Red Rock, a series of angled sandstone slabs that seem to soar into the clean desert sky, uplift being very much the idea here.

"We don't go to the Strip," said real estate salesman Baxter Bullock. This is a basic fact of life in residential Las Vegas, but one periodically subject to reversal -- and two weeks ago was such a time -- by the all too human behavior of a Nevada politician.

Then the Strip comes to them.

Sex, money and a careful calculation of odds are at the core of Sin City, as they are in the soap opera unfolding around Ensign, a born-again Christian raised by a casino executive. The barest contours of the scandal emerged but two weeks ago, when the two-term Republican summoned cameras to a conference room in the Lloyd George Federal Building here to briskly confess to an extramarital affair -- and apologize.

"A minute-and-a-half statement with no questions was as good as you could do admitting an affair, hoping that'd put it an end to it," said Chuck Muth, a Republican activist and campaign consultant here. "Turns out it was only the beginning."

The complementary scandal of fellow Republican Mark Sanford, the governor of the fine Palmetto State of South Carolina, who has single-handedly lent new euphemistic meaning to the phrase "hiking the Appalachian Trail," has taken some of the public spotlight off Ensign. But it also has twinned the two, perhaps in perpetuity.

So behind the scenes, two old friends, Ensign and Hampton, wrestle to control a narrative unfolding publicly with both intriguing details and maddening gaps. The basic outline, however, is not in dispute:

Ensign, 51, admits to an eight-month intimate relationship with Cynthia Hampton, 46, longtime wife of Doug Hampton and longer-time friend of Darlene Ensign, the senator's wife. Cynthia and Darlene have known each other since high school in Orange County, Calif.

The affair started in December 2007, flared dangerously when the Ensigns separated the following April, then finally ended last summer, with the senator and his wife reconciled and in counseling. By autumn everyone was back in their handsomely landscaped houses in gated communities on opposite sides of Crestdale Lane.

"Darlene, Cindy, John and Doug are all kind of the same decent-character people," said Darlene's brother, Jeff Sciarretta, who owns a tile business in town. "The story really begins and ends with, you simply had people who had known each other for a while and were having problems in their marriage, and that's how they got together.

"John not being innocent, Cindy not being innocent, they found mutual companionship, sympathy. The typical thing."

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