The Ethics Committee did not identify specific allegations against Ensign, but the Nevada Senator has faced allegations that he tried to cover up an affair with the spouse of his former top aide. Ensign first acknowledged the affair with Cynthia Hampton, a campaign staff member married to Administrative Assistant Doug Hampton, in June 2009.
Ensign also faces questions over whether he actively sought to help Doug Hampton secure lobbying clients after he left the Senator’s office, potentially violating the Senate’s one-year revolving-door ban.
The Federal Election Commission voted in late 2010 to dismiss a complaint alleging that Ensign violated campaign finance rules over a $96,000 gift his parents provided to the Hamptons.
Doug Hampton had alleged the funds constituted a severance payment, but the FEC ruled that only Ensign’s parents could attest to the “intent” of the funds, which the couple described as a “gift” in sworn statements.
The Justice Department likewise declined in December to pursue allegations against Ensign.
Ensign’s attorney, Rob Walker, said Tuesday that the Nevada lawmaker will cooperate with the ongoing investigation.
“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. An attorney with Wiley Rein, Walker has previously served as the chief counsel of both the Senate Ethics Committee and the House Ethics Committee.
“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,” Walker said.
An attorney for the Hamptons did not return a telephone call Tuesday.
Despite the ongoing Ethics inquiry, Ensign has indicated that he is committed to running for a third term.
Ensign told reporters that his plans remained “full speed ahead” Tuesday, according to a report in Politico.
“We’re hoping that it speeds the things up and we’d like to get this thing resolved as quickly as possible. We’re just hoping that that’s the way things end up working out for us,” Ensign told the newspaper.
But Ensign could be vulnerable to a GOP primary challenge, particularly if Rep. Dean Heller jumps into the race.
As Roll Call reported earlier this month, Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, found Heller finishing well ahead of every Democratic opponent tested.
But the poll showed Ensign statistically tied with Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is seriously mulling the race and would be considered the Democratic frontrunner. Meanwhile, Heller led Berkley by 13 points.
Kyle Trygstad and David M. Drucker contributed to this report.