WASHINGTON-- The Senate ethics committee has hired a prominent Washington attorney to investigate allegations against Sen. John Ensign, a sign that it is stepping up its probe into how the Nevada senator dealt with the fallout from his extramarital affair with a senior aide's wife.
Carol Elder Bruce, a well-known Washington trial attorney and a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, has been named special counsel in the ethics investigation, committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Vice Chairman Johnny Isakson, (R-Ga.) announced Tuesday.
Bruce will lead a preliminary inquiry into allegations that Ensign, a Republican, violated Senate ethics rules and federal law in the aftermath of his affair with Cynthia Hampton, a campaign aide married to another Ensign aide and close friend of the senator's, Douglas Hampton.
The relatively rare step of hiring a special counsel indicates that Ensign is not out of the woods, although previously investigations into the matter have not yielded criminal charges or disciplinary actions.
Ensign acknowledged the affair in 2009, after Douglas Hampton threatened to go public. The senator later acknowledged that his parents had paid Cynthia and Douglas Hampton $96,000 after Douglas left his job in the senator's office. The Hamptons have suggested the payment was severance, but liberal critics have termed it an improper campaign contribution to Ensign by his parents. Ensign called the payment a gift.
Two other investigations into the matter have come out in the senator's favor. In December, the Justice Department announced that Sen. Ensign would not face criminal charges in connection with his attempts to find lobbying work for Douglas Hampton. The senator had been accused of using his influence with donors to find Hampton a job.
The Federal Election Commission also dismissed a complaint related to the $96,000 payment.
The Senate committee said Tuesday that the "purpose of a preliminary inquiry is to determine whether there is substantial credible evidence that a violation within the committee's jurisdiction has occurred."
The inquiry could result in a dismissal of the allegations, a letter of admonition or a full hearing before the committee that could result in disciplinary action.
Once considered a politician on the rise who was part of the GOP Senate leadership team, Ensign has kept a low profile since the scandal erupted. He has said he plans for run for reelection in 2012.