Letter from DC: Put Your Pants On and Go Home

By , Columnist

Washington's K Street crew has been giddy with the recent spate of sex scandals facing many of the political class' high-profile figures. Georgetown's Café Milano is abuzz with the sexual assault charges against the DC-based IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn; Bistro Bis's bar finally got a look at the mother of former California Gover/Sperminator Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child; and Pennsylvania Avenue's Capital Grille rued the resignation of Senator John Ensign (R-NV) over his affair with his campaign treasurer and wife of his sycophantic administrative assistant.

As is always the case, it wasn't the sex that got Ensign in trouble. Newt Gingrich is mounting a semi-credible candidacy for President, even after crossover affairs with two of his three wives, and he no worse for the wear. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) was re-elected even after getting caught up in the DC Madam scandal.

But Ensign's scandal is especially delicious. Where the Starr Report on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal read like a bad Penthouse Forum letter, the first half of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics' report on Ensign should be optioned by Lifetime (is James Brolin looking for work?).James Brolin.jpg

It's the classic DC story of devoted political aides willing (and pressured) to serve their bosses at the expense of their integrity. It's not a new movie. Remember Andrew Young, the devoted aide who took a fraudulent paternity hit for past Presidential candidate John Edward's love child with Rielle Hunter?

At its core, Ensign pressured the wife -- Cindy Hampton -- of his administrative assistant -- Doug Hampton -- into an affair.  What makes this case the more tawdry is the closeness between the Ensigns and Hamptons. Cindy Hampton was the high school BFF of Ensign's wife, Darlene. Doug Hampton was Ensign's weekly golfing buddy. The Ensigns helped pay for the Hamptons' outside-of-their-means Summerlin, NV home three minutes from the Ensigns; they paid the private school tuition of the Hamptons' kids; and covered joint family vacations to Hawaii and a California lake house.

When the Hamptons' Summerlin house was burglarized, Ensign insisted that a distraught Cindy stay with the Ensigns (while Doug was in DC). A little wine and some major coercion landed a reluctant Cindy in the sack. Doug later found out about the affair by reading a text message from Ensign to Cindy ("How wonderful it is... Scared but excited") while the three of them were picking up a Hampton child at the airport for the Christmas holidays.

Doug appealed to the "Family" -- a C Street commune of the "International Foundation" that serves as a spiritual frat house for "Christian" lawmakers, and the sponsor of the "National Prayer Breakfast" -- to intervene.  The "Family" tried to intercede, so much so, that they called Ensign while he was in a hotel room with Cindy.

"Family" head Tim Coe dialed Ensign and said, "I know exactly where you are.  I know exactly what you're doing. Put your pants on and go home." Later, "Family" member, Sen Tom Coburn (R-OK) tried to mediate a financial settlement between Ensign and Doug, recalling its specificity because he was irritated that the call came while riding his lawnmower. Really.

But getting caught with his pants down isn't what got Ensign in trouble. It was his efforts to relieve himself of the mess he created by setting up lobbying gigs for an unqualified Doug.  "Senator Ensign facilitated Mr. Hampton's unlawful post-employment lobbying by pressuring contributors and constituencies to hire Mr. Hampton even though he had no public policy experience or value as a lobbyist other than access to the Senator and his office," the report read.

The problem? Congressional rules dictate that its staff members cannot directly lobby their former employers for one year. Doug improperly contacted Ensign's office on behalf of at least 12 different "clients" and initiated 30 improper contacts under the auspices of Ensign's chief-of-staff. "All Hampton had to do was have someone else call and e-mail with a name drop that it was coming from him, and they would have been kosher," said an experienced lobbyist.

Not only did Ensign likely run afoul of lobbying rules, he got his parents in some pretty hot water as well. The 53 year-old man appealed to Mommy and Stepdaddy for them to throw $96,000 the Hampton's way.  A "gift" would have been legal. "Severance," as it was initially labeled, has campaign finance attorneys salivating retainers.

Ensign resigned in disgrace the day before he was to be deposed by the Ethics special counsel and now faces potential obstruction of justice charges, among others; Doug is under indictment for violating lobbying rules; and Cindy has filed for divorce and bankruptcy, and is trying to start a new life with a job in California for a Christian organization. You can't make this stuff up. Lifetime should have little trouble putting this one together, expect of course if the lobbyists at its corporate owners -- Disney, Comcast-NBC Universal, and Hearst -- feel it could hit a little close to home.

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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