Summer of 2009 becomes season of sex scandal

The summer of 2009 is becoming the summer of the sex scandal as five controversies involving prominent lawmakers have come to light or been further detailed in the past two months.

The incidents have cost some their political ambitions, others their jobs and several their reputations.

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Friday delivered the latest blow, with a report that former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), the two-time presidential candidate, will likely admit he is the father of an 18-month-old girl whose mother once worked for his campaign.

Sources told WRAL news, a CBS affiliate in Raleigh, that Edwards could make the confession before the end of a criminal investigation into the use of his campaign funds. There are allegations the funds were used illegally to keep Rielle Hunter quiet about her relationship with Edwards. The former senator admitted last August that he and Hunter had an affair while Hunter worked as a videographer on his campaign.

And a new book by longtime Edwards aide Andrew Young, who originally claimed he was the father of Hunter’s baby, is said to reveal Edwards is actually the father, according to the WRAL report.

If Edwards does admit to fathering Hunter's child, it will be the latest in a summer saga involving five men who reached political prominence and lost it through public embarrassment.

In July, documents in a lawsuit between two Mississippi women suggested that an affair ended what would have been an all-but-certain quest for a Senate seat.

Leisha Pickering, wife of former Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), sued a woman who she alleges was her husband's mistress during his tenure in Washington. Leisha Pickering alleges in the lawsuit that her husband turned down an appointment to former Sen. Trent Lott's (R-Miss.) Senate seat because he would have had to end his relationship with his mistress.

Pickering has refused to comment on the matter and has filed for divorce.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's (R) office denied reports Pickering was offered the seat, which eventually went to Sen. Roger Wicker (R).

Also last month, though considerably lower-profile than the others, Tennessee state Sen. Paul Stanley (R) admitted to having a relationship with a college student who served as his intern. He alleged the woman's boyfriend had tried to extort $10,000 from him in exchange for lewd photos and a video.

The woman in the case, an honors student, has not been charged with extortion, though the boyfriend has. Stanley, a conservative who advocated abstinence outside of marriage, resigned from office on Monday.

The summer of scandal began in mid-June when Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) admitted to a long-term affair with a woman who served on his staff. The senator won high marks for getting in front of the story, though it did cost him the chairmanship of the Republican Policy Committee.

But in following months various details about the relationship leaked. Timelines put forward by the senator and the woman’s husband, former Ensign aide Doug Hampton, did not add up. Finally, Ensign revealed his parents had given $96,000 to four members of the Hampton family, dividing up the funds in order to skirt gift taxes.

Ensign refuses to answer any more questions, citing legal advice. The Senate Ethics Committee has been asked to investigate the matter.
 
Less than a week after Ensign's affair became public, a few calls from South Carolina Republican strategists began reaching Washington: Where, they wondered, was Gov. Mark Sanford (R)? For nearly a week, his office obfuscated the matter, at first claiming he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

But a reporter for The State newspaper found Sanford at the Atlanta airport, returning from what he later admitted was a week-long rendezvous with an Argentine woman he met in a dance club in Uruguay in 2001. In a tearful, rambling press conference, Sanford copped to the affair. State legislators say they have the votes to impeach him when the legislature returns in January.

Sanford, once destined to inherit the fiscal conservative mantle heading into the 2012 presidential election, has now seen the writing on the wall, telling a Rotary Club on Thursday that his "political days are over."

Though none of the scandals have risen to the level of the Monica Lewinsky affair — at least not yet — the cascade of infidelity trumps the scandals that dominated headlines between 2004 and 2007: former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) (who admitted to an extramarital affair with a man); former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) (who resigned from office after allegations he sent sexually explicit e-mails to male teenage congressional pages); former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) (who was arrested for lewd conduct in a men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport); and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) (who was a client of a D.C. madam).

The disgraced politicians have left a raft of disillusioned, disappointed and dismayed staffers, allies and friends in their wake.

"To ask hundreds of staffers, thousands of volunteers to break from their normal lives and dedicate themselves to his election, while still being as reckless and irresponsible as he was being is beyond disappointing," said one former Edwards staffer. "Could he have been any more reckless?"

"I know how Bill Murray's character must have felt in the movie 'Groundhog Day'; each day seems to bring a new way to end his political career, but Mark still wakes up the next morning to live another day," one former Sanford ally joked darkly in an e-mail to The Hill. "South Carolina has a storied and at times seedy political history, but this chapter will live in infamy for decades."

And the scandals of 2009 may only hint at what’s to come.

"For anyone in the public eye, more is being reported than in the past and, for better or worse, there is less regard for the privacy of one's personal life," said Rhodes Cook, an independent political analyst. "I think this plays into a lower regard for public figures and institutions in general that we see being played out on a daily basis this month."

Said the former Edwards staffer: "It's why people have no faith in government anymore."