Nevada Sen. Ensign, facing ethics probe, will resign
WASHINGTON — Nevada Sen. John Ensign, facing an ethics investigation stemming from an affair with a campaign aide, will resign on Friday, his office announced Thursday afternoon.
The Republican announced in March that he would not seek a third term in 2012, saying he wanted to spare his family an "exceptionally ugly" campaign.
The decision to resign now would stop any action against him by the Senate Ethics Committee, which in February named a special counsel to consider possible violations of ethics rules and federal law.
"While I stand behind my firm belief that I have not violated any law, rule, or standard of conduct of the Senate, and I have fought to prove this publicly, I will not continue to subject my family, my constituents, or the Senate to any further rounds of investigation, depositions, drawn out proceedings, or especially public hearings," Ensign said in a prepared statement. "For my family and me, this continued personal cost is simply too great."
Ensign will submit a letter of resignation to Vice President Joe Biden — who is president of the Senate — on Friday. It will take effect May 3, when the Senate is scheduled to return from recess.
Two members of Congress — Democrat Shelley Berkley and Republican Dean Heller — have already entered the race to succeed Ensign. Nevada's Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, could appoint Heller to replace Ensign, giving him the potential advantage of incumbency in what both parties expect to be one of next year's premier races.
A spokesman for Sandoval said the governor has not yet been notified of Ensign's decision.
Democrats consider the Nevada seat one of their best opportunities to add to their 53-47 majority in the Senate.
Appointing Heller would also trigger a special election in his 2nd congressional district. Sharron Angle, who lost to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2010, has announced her intention to seek that seat.
The Senate Ethics Committee named the special counsel to investigate claims that Ensign violated ethics rules and federal law after his affair with Cynthia Hampton, a campaign aide married to Douglas Hampton, another Ensign aide.
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 Hampton left his job in the senator's office.
The Hamptons have suggested the payment was severance, but critics called it an improper campaign contribution to Ensign by his parents. Ensign called the payment a gift.
The Senate Ethics Committee opened an investigation of Ensign in June 2009. In February, the Senate Ethics Committee named a special counsel to investigate claims that Ensign violated ethics rules and federal law in the aftermath of the affair.
With Ensign's resignation, the panel loses its authority to take disciplinary action against him, but it does not necessarily end its investigation. The committee could refer its findings to state or federal legal authorities if it finds that laws may have been violated.
When asked in March whether his decision not to seek re-election was driven by the Ethics Committee investigation, he said: "If I was concerned about that, I would resign."
Douglas Hampton was indicted in March on charges of violating federal conflict-of-interest laws by lobbying Ensign's office within a year of leaving his job with the senator.
The Justice Department investigation that led to that seven-count indictment also considered whether Ensign helped Hampton secure the lobbying work. But the Justice Department said in December that no charges were being pursued against the senator.
Douglas Hampton pleaded not guilty to the charges this month.