Most complaints of rules violations never reach the stage of a public rebuke. In 2010, the Senate Ethics Committee received 84 complaints of rules violations, began or continued a preliminary inquiry in 12 cases and then dismissed eight of those for lacking merit. In 2009, the committee received 99 notices of alleged Senate rules violations and conducted a preliminary inquiry in 13 cases, eight of which were dismissed. The committee issued one letter of admonition that year, in the matter of Burris.
Though Ensign’s case was a departure from previous enforcement tactics, experts say it could have more to do with the severity of the allegations than a shift in policy.
“It’s easy when a guy has left for them to look tough on the ethics — you’re not doing it with a sitting Senator, you’re not disrupting the body,” said attorney Stephen M. Ryan of McDermott Will & Emery.