When philandering politicians fail to keep their pants zipped, public attention tends to zero in on the salacious details: the stoic wife, the smoldering e-mails, the humiliating apologies.
But in a string of recent political sex scandals, it's campaign finance, lobbying and ethics abuses that may ultimately prove the most damaging.
Extramarital affairs by onetime presidential hopeful John Edwards, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford have raised questions that go far beyond morality and character. In all three cases, irregular expenditures to facilitate or cover up the affairs have led to investigations that could end in serious criminal charges.
A federal grand jury in Raleigh is reportedly investigating whether Edwards, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination without success last year, violated election laws by encouraging supporters to steer large payments to his mistress and onetime campaign videographer, Rielle Hunter.
This latest crop of bad boys, by allegedly misspending public or campaign funds, has strayed beyond moral hazard into criminal danger zones.
Prosecutors are examining whether payments that two wealthy Edwards donors made to Hunter should be considered in-kind campaign contributions, according to the New York Times.
Federal investigators also are reportedly examining more than $100,000 that Edwards paid Hunter through his campaign accounts, ostensibly for her video production work, in 2006 and 2007. Some of the payments came after the fact and followed murky transfers from Edwards' so-called leadership PAC, One America, which raised and spent close to $2.8 million in the 2006 election cycle.
Edwards has said he is confident that he made no improper campaign expenditures. His attorney, Wade Smith, did not respond to a request for comment.
As for Sanford, he faces increasing pressure to resign amid a state Ethics Commission probe into whether he violated travel rules. His lieutenant governor, leaders on both sides of the aisle in the state legislature, and the state's Republican and Democratic party chiefs have all called on him to step down.
Sanford's torrid affair with an Argentine woman is becoming overshadowed by a nasty legal fight over whether the Ethics panel should be permitted to release its preliminary findings to the legislature. The panel is looking into allegations that Sanford misused state planes for personal travel, violated a rule requiring public officials to travel as economically as possible and failed to disclose private plane trips.
Sanford, who maintains that his critics are politically motivated, has asked the state Supreme Court to block the Ethics panel from releasing its preliminary findings to the legislature. But Bobby Harrell, the Republican speaker of the South Carolina House, has responded by asking the state's high court to order the report's release. The court is scheduled to act later this month. In the meantime, impeachment talk in the legislature is growing louder.
Things may be looking even worse for Ensign, who stepped down as head of the Senate Republican Policy Committee after admitting to an affair with a former campaign aide, Cynthia Hampton. Now Ensign may face a federal investigation, following this month's New York Times disclosure that Ensign lined up lobbying work and did policy favors for the woman's husband, Douglas Hampton, himself a former Ensign aide.
The chair of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told CNN on Oct. 4 that her committee has already launched a preliminary investigation. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has called on the Justice Department to investigate, pointing in part to incriminating records and e-mail messages made public by the Times.
Ensign "may well have engaged in criminal conspiracy" by helping Hampton lobby his office, CREW's letter to the Justice Department states, citing ethics laws that bar former congressional aides from lobbying their bosses for one year. Some $96,000 in payments that Ensign's parents paid to Cynthia Hampton may also have violated campaign finance rules, argues CREW. Hampton appears to have received it as severance from her campaign position; Ensign has called it a personal gift.
"I think that Senator Ensign is at serious risk of a Justice Department investigation for running afoul of the Ethics in Government Act," said election lawyer Brett Kappel, counsel at Arent Fox. The Ethics committee, likewise, is not "going to have much choice but to do an investigation here," he added.
"Sen. Ensign will cooperate with any official inquiry, and he is confident that he complied with all laws and ethics rules," said his spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher in an e-mail.
It's hardly the first time marital infidelity has landed politicians in hot water, of course. Congressional Republicans -- including then-House members Ensign and Sanford -- did their best to make President Clinton's lies about Monica Lewinsky the grounds for impeachment. But this latest crop of bad boys, by allegedly misspending public or campaign funds, has strayed beyond moral hazard into criminal danger zones.
"In these three cases, we certainly have people willing to misuse resources in order to conduct and cover up their affairs," said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan.
Occasionally, a politician can foul up personally and still escape voters' wrath. Some constituents may conclude that marital lapses are best left private. But when the affair involves abusing taxpayer and campaign dollars, it becomes everybody's business -- and the damage begins to look irreparable.