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Updated: 11:09 p.m.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) abruptly announced on Thursday he will resign from the Senate, effective May 3.
In a statement released by his office, Ensign cited the ongoing Senate ethics investigation stemming from his extramarital affair with the wife of his former top aide as the reason he was stepping down now as opposed to the end of 2012, when he was not seeking re-election.
“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. “For my family and me, this continued personal cost is simply too great.”
In February, the Ethics Committee hired special counsel Carol Elder Bruce to expedite its investigation of allegations related to Ensign's affair with Cynthia Hampton, a campaign staff member married to Ensign's former senior aide, Doug Hampton. On March 7, Ensign announced he would not run for re-election, saying “there are consequences to sin.”
Earlier this month, Doug Hampton pleaded not guilty to charges that he violated Congressional revolving-door laws by lobbying the Nevada Republican shortly after leaving his job on the Hill.
The Justice Department and Federal Election Commission had announced separately that they were not pursuing investigations into Ensign’s conduct, but the Senate Ethics panel was pressing ahead.
Senate Ethics Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Vice Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) supported Ensign’s decision to step down.
“The Senate Ethics Committee has worked diligently for 22 months on this matter and will complete its work in a timely fashion,” they said in a statement Thursday night. “Senator Ensign has made the appropriate decision.”
Sources said the Senator informed his Nevada and Washington, D.C., staff of his decision late Thursday afternoon.
Ensign’s imminent resignation is a major boost to Republicans, who expected a competitive 2012 open-seat race between Reps. Dean Heller (R) and Shelley Berkley (D). Heller announced his bid in March, and Berkley said she would run last week.
Nevada law dictates that Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) must appoint a successor who will serve out the rest of Ensign’s term through 2012. Nevada Republicans expect Sandoval to pick Heller because it gives the Congressman a leg up next year and the ability to essentially run as an incumbent.
Heller’s reaction to the speculation was brief. “Governor Sandoval has the authority to appoint individuals to the U.S. Senate, and I will respect whatever decision that he makes,” he said.