Senate ethics panel appoints special counsel to investigate Ensign

So many political scandals, so hard to keep track. Here are some of the most memorable of the past decade.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 10:27 PM

The Senate Ethics Committee has appointed a special counsel to lead the investigation of activities connected to Sen. John Ensign's affair with a political aide.

Tuesday's announcement is a dramatic turn in the probe of the Nevada Republican that has been under way for more than 16 months, suggesting that the scrutiny will run deep into the 2012 election season.

In a bipartisan statement, the committee announced the hiring of Carol Elder Bruce, a veteran white-collar criminal defense lawyer at K&L Gates. It is the first time in two decades that the Senate ethics panel has retained a special counsel to investigate a senator.

The committee is examining Ensign's affair with Cynthia Hampton, who was one of his wife's closest friends and who worked for the political committees of the once rising star in the GOP. The case appears to be focusing on Ensign's help in getting lobbying work for Hampton's husband, Doug Hampton, also a close family friend and onetime aide to the senator. Both Hamptons had been dismissed in spring 2008. Federal law and Senate rules required Doug Hampton to refrain from lobbying Ensign's office for one year.

Ensign, who admitted the affair in June 2009, denied any wrongdoing in an interview Tuesday, citing the decision in December by the Justice Department to abandon its criminal investigation and the Federal Election Commission's decision to drop a probe into whether payments to the Hamptons violated campaign rules.

"The Justice Department saw it that way; FEC saw it that way, that I broke no laws. And I don't think I broke any Senate ethics rules, and we're hoping they see it the same way," Ensign said.

The senator added that he had met with his fundraising team that morning and that he was going "full speed ahead" in his run for reelection next year. He predicted that it would be an "exceptionally ugly" race that might prompt a primary challenge from fellow Republicans.

The ethics investigation is not focused specifically on whether the senator's actions were serious enough to warrant a federal criminal trial but on issues connected to congressional rules governing what a senator can do to help former senior aides in the lobbying field. In addition, the ethics committee can simply declare that a senator engaged in "conduct unbecoming" of the institution, as the panel declared in its 1995 report recommending the expulsion of then-senator Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) for sexual misconduct.

The Ensign investigation remains at the "preliminary inquiry" stage, which under Senate rules is similar to a grand jury investigation. But the appointment of an outside legal team suggests the case could be more far-reaching. If the preliminary inquiry uncovers "substantial credible evidence" of a serious rules breach, the committee is required to open an "adjudicatory review" that would normally require hiring an outside counsel to lead what amounts to a trial phase of the investigation.

Other cases that involved the hiring of special counsel include the 1990 "Keating Five" investigation, involving public hearings into the actions of five senators who met with prominent banker Charles Keating in the savings-and-loan scandal, as well as the 1990 investigation into then-senator David Durenberger's personal finances. Both were led by prominent Washington lawyer Robert Bennett.

Those cases ended with then-senator Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) receiving a "strong and severe reprimand" and Durenberger (R-Minn.) being publicly "denounced" by the full Senate for improperly collecting reimbursement fees from the Senate for personal travels. Both senators retired instead of seeking reelection.

Ensign said he did not know that the special counsel appointment was coming because he does not talk to the committee. "We're hoping that it speeds the things up, and we'd like to get this thing resolved as quickly as possible," he said.

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