Ensign announced in June 2009 that he had an extramarital affair with Cynthia Hampton, a former member of his campaign staff. Amid the scandal, his parents provided the Hamptons with $96,000, described as a gift, and Ensign helped find Doug Hampton, the husband, a lobbying job. The senator announced his resignation in late April.
Ensign’s farewell speech was notable as much for who was not there as for what he said. Not a single colleague came to hear him speak or to pay tribute to his service. The gallery was empty of family members and staffers who often pack its seats for such occasions. Five of Ensign’s staffers lined a bench on the Senate floor during his address; one could be seen wiping a tear with a tissue.
In the presiding officer’s chair, freshman Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., opened a folder on his desk and appeared to begin writing remarks on a separate matter the moment Ensign began speaking.
“I was blind to how arrogant and self-centered that I had become. I did not recognize that I thought mostly of myself,” Ensign said.
Ensign cautioned his colleagues to surround themselves with people who will be honest with them, “and then make them promise not to hold back, no matter how you may try to prevent them from telling you the truth.”
Before the affair with Cynthia Hampton became public, Ensign had been highly critical of colleagues who had fallen from grace.
Ensign said he regretted judging two scandalized colleagues, former Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and the late Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and calling for their resignation. Later, Ensign privately apologized to them and asked them to forgive him. Ensign said they did.
Ensign revealed that Craig was one of the first to call with support after Ensign had admitted his affair.
“A person understands mercy a lot more when they need it and when it’s shown to them,” he said.
Ensign also used the speech to praise his wife, Darlene.
“I do not deserve a woman like her, but I love her,” Ensign said.
Ensign apologized to colleagues for putting them in a bad position. He also talked about his legislative accomplishments as a senator and as a member of the House, primarily noting that he had helped author bills that set aside land for parks and trails, and that he had arranged for money from the sale of public lands to go to the state’s educational system.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval has appointed Rep. Dean Heller to complete Ensign’s second term. He is scheduled to be sworn in on May 9. A special election to replace Heller will be held in September.
The Justice Department eventually dropped its criminal investigation of Ensign. Meanwhile, the Senate Ethics Committee continued its review and announced in February that it was appointing a special counsel to investigate him.
Weeks later, Ensign said he would be resigning effective Tuesday because he wanted to spare his family and others from the continued fallout of the affair.
Ensign has kept a low profile during much of the past two years. GOP leaders quickly removed him from a leadership position after his admission of the affair and kept their distance from him publicly.