Sen. John Ensign said Thursday his parents gave his mistress and her family nearly $100,000 "out of concern for the well being of longtime family friends during a difficult time," providing his first public acknowledgment that the woman received payments tied to the affair.
In a statement through his attorney, Ensign described the April 2008 payment as a single check for $96,000 given to Cindy and Doug Hampton and two of their children. The Hampton family received the check after the senator told his parents of his affair with Cindy Hampton, a campaign aide and longtime friend.
"None of the gifts came from campaign or official funds, nor were they related to any campaign or official duties," Ensign’s Dallas-based attorney, Paul Coggins, said in a statement. "Sen. Ensign has complied with all applicable laws and Senate ethics rules."
The statement comes a day after Doug Hampton told a Las Vegas television show that Ensign paid Cindy Hampton more than $25,000 in severance when she left her job as treasurer for two Ensign-controlled campaign committees in May 2008.
Ensign, the son of a Las Vegas casino mogul, had not commented directly on allegations of payments to the Hamptons, but through a spokesman called Doug Hampton’s statements "consistently inaccurate."
A possible unreported severance payment raised questions of a campaign finance violation. A gift from the senator’s parents may not pose the same problems, one ethics expert said.
Stan Brand, a Washington attorney who represents clients in ethics cases and does not have ties to Ensign, said he sees no ethical or legal problems with parents making the payment.
"The family can give what it wants to give, assuming it’s OK with the IRS," Brand said.
Coggins of the firm Fish and Richardson PC said no laws were violated with the $96,000 check.
"The gifts are consistent with a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family to the Hamptons and others," he said. "The payments were made as gifts, accepted as gifts and complied with tax rules governing gifts."
Neither Coggins nor an attorney for the Hamptons returned a call for comment.
Ensign, a 51-year-old conservative Christian lawmaker, confessed to the affair last month, after Doug Hampton sought money from the senator through an attorney and began to take his story to the media.
The news at least temporarily derailed a career that has often been lifted by his family’s support. Ensign’s father, retired casino executive Mike Ensign, was a powerhouse fundraiser on the Las Vegas Strip for his son’s early campaigns.
Doug Hampton maintains that his livelihood has been ruined by his wife’s affair with the senator.
Until May 2008, Doug Hampton also worked for Ensign, as a Senate aide. After leaving the Senate office, Ensign helped Hampton land a job as a consultant and then a full-time employee for an airline owned by an Ensign contributor.
"This is a grievous act," Doug Hampton said Wednesday on the local news show "Face to Face with Jon Ralston." "When you look at the details, when we talk about all of the things that have taken place as a result of John’s actions and leadership, and the decisions that he initiated, and things that were covered up to help this happen … It’s unbelievable."
The Hamptons and Ensigns have been friends for decades. Cindy Hampton and Ensign’s wife, Darlene, went to high school together. The families live in adjacent gated communities in the Las Vegas suburbs and their children attend the same school.
Doug Hampton said he discovered the affair in December 2007, after reading an incriminating text message from Ensign on his wife’s phone. In the following months, Hampton said the senator aggressively pursued his wife.
In February 2008, Hampton claims he arranged for a group of Ensign’s friends to meet at the senator’s Washington home, a town house shared by several Christian lawmakers known as "C Street."
Hampton said he, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and others tried to get Ensign to break off the affair, as well as to help the Hamptons pay off their home and relocate to Colorado. They also persuaded Ensign to write a letter to Cindy Hampton apologizing for using her "for my own pleasure," Hampton said.
A spokesman for Coburn on Wednesday acknowledged that the senator had counseled Ensign to end the tryst, but the senator on Thursday denied Hampton’s account.
"I was never present when the letter was written, never made any assessment about paying anybody anything," Coburn told reporters in Washington, according to the Las Vegas Sun. "Those are untruths. Those are absolute untruths."
Coburn would not comment on the advice he gave Ensign, saying his position as a physician and ordained deacon required that he keep the information private.
"I’m not going to go into that — that’s privileged communications," Coburn said. "I’m never going to talk about that with anybody. I never will, not to a court of law, not to an ethics committee, not to anybody — because that is privileged communication that I will never reveal to anybody."
Also Thursday, a liberal Washington watchdog group sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking for a criminal probe of the possible severance payment. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has also sought a Senate ethics investigation into the matter.
An FBI spokesman in Las Vegas, David Staretz, said the bureau was not investigating the matter. The U.S. Attorney for Nevada did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Associated Press writer Larry Margasak in Washington contributed to this report.