LAS VEGAS AND SAN FRANCISCO — Nevada Sen. John Ensign's wealthy parents gave his mistress and her family $96,000, the conservative lawmaker revealed Thursday, an admission that further darkened his once-bright career and caused even allies to question his continued effectiveness as a U.S. senator.
The gifts to Cynthia Hampton; her husband, Doug; and two of their children were made "out of concern for the well-being of longtime family friends during a difficult time," said a statement from Ensign's attorney. The money was paid in $12,000 increments in April 2008, the month that both Hamptons left Ensign's employ.
The payments were "consistent with a pattern of generosity" by Ensign's parents, the statement said. Ensign's father, Michael, is a former casino mogul who helped bankroll his son's rise from congressman to onetime GOP White House aspirant.
The admission came after Doug Hampton alleged in a television interview this week that Ensign had paid his wife "a lot more than" $25,000 in severance when she left his campaign and political action committee. Doug Hampton also worked for Ensign, as his top aide. A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, asked the Justice Department to investigate the allegation because neither the campaign nor the PAC had reported the expenditure.
Ensign lawyer Paul Coggins, a former U.S. attorney who specializes in white-collar criminal defense, said Thursday that it was the parents who paid the Hamptons, and that Ensign had followed "all applicable laws and Senate ethics rules."
The latest revelations into Ensign's affair follow the interview, aired Wednesday and Thursday, that Doug Hampton gave to Jon Ralston, a political commentator and Las Vegas TV host. Hampton painted Ensign as something of a "Desperate Housewives" character: the unrepentant wife-chaser who tried to buy his mistress' silence.
"Nevadans are very forgiving," said conservative activist Chuck Muth, who called the financial revelations highly damaging. "Live and let live -- what doesn't affect me doesn't affect me. But the fact this occurred with someone who worked for Sen. Ensign and may have felt coerced . . . make this a whole different story altogether."
Politically, Ensign may be saved by the poor state of the Nevada Republican Party. GOP Gov. Jim Gibbons has faced his own set of scandals, including accusations of infidelity. Lacking strong leadership and absent an obvious candidate to replace him, the state party establishment is not likely to pressure Ensign to step aside.
He also has the advantage of time: He was reelected in 2006 and won't face voters again until 2012. But Ensign's budding presidential hopes -- he had visited Iowa recently -- seem permanently dashed.
Nevada's congressional delegation -- including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat -- remained silent about Ensign on Thursday. But Steve Wark, a GOP strategist and former state party chairman, said his longtime friend was surely mulling his future in Washington.
"This makes it very difficult for him to be effective. . . . I would have to think this would give him pause as to what he wants to do with his political future," he said.
Asked whether Ensign should consider resigning, Wark said: "I believe that he's compelled to do that. I don't think he needs to be pushed in that direction by anybody."
Political observers said it would be tough for Ensign, a Christian conservative who belongs to the Promise Keepers ministry, to rebuild his image with voters.
"There is no way to spin this to make it positive," said Joseph M. Valenzano III, a specialist in political communication at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "It smacks of 'I'm not responsible if I have someone else do it.' It's like having your father pay your parking ticket."
Valenzano said that although he considered Doug Hampton calculating and unsympathetic, "if he really is a wronged husband and wanted to destroy Ensign's national ambitions, this was a good way to do it."
In December 2007, according to the interview on "Face to Face With Jon Ralston," Doug and Cynthia Hampton's house was broken into. They temporarily moved in with John and Darlene Ensign. That's when the affair began, said Doug Hampton, who learned of the liaison via a text message on his wife's phone.
Hampton said that even after he confronted Ensign, the senator continued to pursue his wife, who worked for Ensign's campaign and PAC.
In February 2008, Hampton said, he enlisted friends involved in a Washington Christian fellowship -- including Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) -- to help end the affair. Hampton described the advice the friends gave Ensign: "These men were the ones that said, 'What we need to do is get Doug Hampton's home paid for, and we need to get Doug Hampton some money. We need to get his family to Colorado.' "
Coburn admitted to admonishing Ensign, but he told reporters Thursday that he "never made any assessment about paying anybody anything."