No Higher Ground
Affair Cannot Hide in Ensign's Other Vegas

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."

Except: Both of the Hamptons worked for John Ensign. Doug was a senior aide in the Russell Senate Office Building. Cindy was treasurer for his campaign. The employment situation alone presented whole new vistas of complication in a situation that, in the least public workplace, would already have been as delicate as emptied eggshells. And this was in the Senate.

"I'm not even sure how he came to work for John," Sciarretta said of Hampton. "They all trusted each other, I suppose."

The indiscretion might have remained discreet. Darlene's family found out only after the fact, and were spared the details, according to relatives.

"It was nobody's business," Sciarretta said.

"Of course that's changed now."

The neighbors were in the dark, too.

"Nobody knew," said Darla Coleman, president of the Parent-Teacher Fellowship at Faith Lutheran Junior/Senior High School. The private academy (home of the Faith Crusaders) on Hualapai Way is attended by a total of five children from the combined families. The scandal broke after the start of summer vacation.

"It wasn't common knowledge on the street," Coleman said, "until he announced it. I think it was a very private matter until it had to be public."

The imperative for disclosure, according to Ensign's spokesman, was a letter Doug Hampton addressed to Fox News Channel earlier this month.

"Here is my story," Hampton wrote, laying out his grievances to a favorite anchor, Megyn Kelly. He complained of Ensign's "relentless pursuit of my wife" and described confronting him in the Capitol Hill townhouse on C Street, zoned as church property, he shares with other senators. Hampton was indignant that Ensign had risen to the No. 4 position in the GOP caucus while "we on the other hand are completely ruined."

Pressed to explain the abrupt disclosure of an affair that had been over almost a year, Ensign's spokesman issued a statement implying the wronged husband was shaking down the senator.

Ensign supporters admired the preemptive. "Get your story out before the other side gets its out," said Coleman. "That's what you hear at the nail parlor."

In the days that followed the news, as the media scrum settled into place, Hampton stood silent, waving off reporters who outsmarted the electronic gate at the Desert Trails development.

The Hamptons' attorney, Daniel Albregts, politely took down contacts for the reporters queuing up to ask his clients how, for instance, they came to work for their friend. Doug's $162,000 annual salary was near the Hill limit. Cindy's pay doubled in the middle of the affair. Their son, 19, had a $1,000-a-month internship at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Ensign headed from 2007 to '08. After both Hamptons were dismissed as Ensign aides in April 2008, Doug Hampton found work as vice president for government affairs at Allegiant Air, owned by a major Ensign contributor. The family's five-bedroom, five-bath home with rock waterfall pool, spa and billiard room is for sale. Purchased for $1.2 million in 2006, it's assessed at half that today in a city where an estimated 70 percent of homeowners are underwater.

Last week, Ensign met privately with his fellow Senate Republicans and gave a two-minute speech of apology, which, they said, closed the whole affair in their minds, despite calls from some watchdogs for an ethics committee investigation of the affair.

"I think he's prepared to move on, and I wish him well," said Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.). A majority of Nevadans agree Ensign should stay on the job, according to a poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The survey framed the question oddly, comparing Ensign's "admitted affair" with the airport restroom high jinks of former senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho.). But even with an approval rating at 39 percent, the adulterous junior senator remains the most popular elected official in the Silver State.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, faces reelection next year with just 34 percent. And Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) struggles to reach double digits after winning a campaign marked by a cocktail waitress's accusation that he tried to force himself on her in a parking garage.

"These things don't end quickly," said Robert Uithoven, who managed the Gibbons campaign. In Carson City, Gibbons's poor political performance was reinforced by a spectacularly tendentious divorce from his wife of 22 years, who for a while had the governor's mansion to herself.

"Isn't that ironic?" said Sig Rogich, a longtime Republican consultant. "In the land of quickie divorce, this is the longest one I can remember and it's the governor's."

Ensign hasn't Gibbons's personal baggage, but neither has he visible support from a state party that Muth, the consultant, said the senator has neglected.

"I think it's the hypocrisy charge that makes this a lot more relevant," Muth said. Ensign made personal morality a measuring stick for public service. He was quick to condemn Craig and President Bill Clinton, and joined Promise Keepers, the evangelical phenomenon that in the 1990s filled stadiums with men publicly promising to remain faithful to their marriage vows.

Muth recalled driving Ensign and two other Republicans to a Lake Tahoe event a decade ago. "These guys, that's all they were talking was Bible stuff in the back seat of the car, quoting biblical passages," he said.

In Vegas, the Ensigns attend Meadows Fellowship, a low-key evangelical sanctuary that just added a third service to accommodate the Sunday morning demand. Her brother said Darlene Ensign had a conversion experience in high school. For the senator, it was in college.

"He blamed no one but himself," Pastor Ron Flores wrote in his Pastor's Weekly Musings newsletter, and declined to comment further, pausing on the sidewalk after services. The midday sun was directly overhead, and in the clean desert light, even the curbs looked somehow ideal.

"It's a common understanding that it's two cities," Flores said. "The international city, which is the Strip. And the ordinary city.

"In this part of town, anything other than the Strip is Las Vegas."

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