Senate ethics panel launches Ensign probe


The Senate Ethics panel on Tuesday announced a probe into whether Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) broke the rules by trying to help the husband of his former mistress find lobbying work. 

The panel announced the appointment of a special counsel who will conduct an inquiry that experts say could last through 2012, severely hampering Ensign’s reelection chances. 

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Ensign has said he will run for reelection despite the scandal. 

The senator, once a member of his party’s Senate leadership and a prospective presidential candidate, has admitted to having an affair with Cindy Hampton, a former campaign aide. 

Lawyers for Ensign have acknowledged the senator’s parents paid Hampton and her family $96,000 in gifts. Separately, The New York Times reported that Ensign tried to help Hampton’s husband, Doug Hampton, a former senior aide and close friend to Ensign, find lobbying work after he left the senator’s staff. 

The leading members of the Senate’s Select Committee on Ethics, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), announced Carol Elder Bruce would serve as special counsel for the “preliminary inquiry” into whether Ensign violated Senate rules. 

Ensign hopes the appointment of Bruce will hasten the inquiry and prove that he complied with the chamber’s rules, according to his lawyer, Robert Walker, a former chief counsel and staff director of both the Senate and House Ethics Committees. 

“The Senate Ethics Committee has assured Sen. Ensign that their inquiry remains in the preliminary stage and that the appointment of a special counsel does not change the course of its inquiry,” Walker said in a statement. 

“Sen. Ensign is confident that he complied with all ethics rules and laws, and he is hopeful that this appointment will lead to a more speedy resolution of this matter. As Sen. Ensign’s office has been doing, they will continue to cooperate with the committee’s inquiry.”

Stan Brand, a congressional ethics expert and former general counsel of the House, said that Ensign would be hard-pressed to have the inquiry resolved by 2012. The Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission have already conducted their own investigation of Ensign, and both cleared him. 

In light of those two investigations, Brand said he has no clue as to why the committee felt it had to start its own inquiry.

“[This is going to proceed] slowly, unfortunately for the respondent, because he’s already been through now a two-year Justice Department investigation and now somebody’s going to have to start all over and reinvent the wheel at the committee level,” said Brand. “It could easily draw out to 2012.”

When news of the affair and alleged impropriety broke, Ensign’s approval ratings took a hard hit, and he has been steadily trying to rekindle political support in Nevada ever since. Most recently, The Cook Political Report listed Ensign’s seat as a “toss-up” for 2012. 

Ensign reported $225,000 in his Senate reelection fund as of the end of December. He spent a total of $56,116 on legal fees in the most recent reporting period. 

Shane D’Aprile contributed to this report


This story was posted at 11:06 a.m. and updated at 8:12 p.m.