LAS VEGAS — The Senate Ethics Committee said scandal-scarred Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign made the right decision to turn in a letter of resignation Friday, and indicated a nearly two-year probe of his conduct wasn't over.
The panel's chairman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the vice chairman, Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, issued a terse statement saying the committee had spent 22 months investigating "and will complete its work in a timely fashion."
The investigation was expected to end with Ensign's resignation.
"Senator Ensign has made the appropriate decision," the statement said.
Ensign, 53, announced Thursday he would step down on May 3, citing "wear and tear" on himself and his family.
The resignation comes nearly two years after Ensign acknowledged having had an extramarital affair with a former staffer. He was accused of helping the woman's husband — a top former Ensign staffer — obtain lobbying work.
Ensign's pending departure also casts a new sense of urgency over Nevada's closely-watched Senate race to replace him. After he announced last month that he would not seek re-election, Democrats hoped to claim the seat to protect their fragile Senate majority.
In the meantime, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval will appoint a successor to serve the remainder of the term through the end of 2012. Sandoval had previously endorsed Republican Rep. Dean Heller of northern Nevada in the race and is widely expected to crown him an incumbent, affording Heller a slight advantage over Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democrat's favored candidate.
Heller's appointment to the Senate, meanwhile, would require an unprecedented special congressional election in Nevada.
In a quirk of Nevada politics, state leaders are uncertain about how to carry out the never enforced special election law that does not allow for a primary. Their decision could decide the political fate of tea party favorite and perennial candidate Sharron Angle, who has been running for Heller's seat and could be closed out of the race if party leaders are allowed to pick their general election contestants.
Ensign insisted Thursday he has done nothing wrong. But he said he was shaken by the Senate Ethics Committee decision in February to name a special counsel to look into the matter, after the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission investigated and then dropped their cases.
"I was hopeful that, with the closure of these investigations against me, the wear and tear on my family and me would soon be over. This was not the case," he said.
"As is its right, the Senate Ethics Committee is continuing its investigation of issues into which it has been inquiring for the past year and a half. Indeed, the committee even decided recently to devote more resources to its investigation by hiring an outside counsel, even though the issues have been viewed and reviewed by so many others," he said.
In his statement, Ensign said that he could no longer put up with the intense focus of the affair and the ethical issues.
"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," he said.
Several national and state Republican leaders said Thursday they hoped Sandoval would appoint Heller to Ensign's seat.
"It certainly helps clear the air and narrows the field," said former Gov. Bob List, now a national committeeman. "I certainly would urge the governor to appoint Dean Heller to the seat."
Berkley and Heller had been evenly matched, with their equal name recognition in Nevada and similar political credentials. Wealthy businessman Byron Georgiou is also seeking the Democratic nomination.
But choosing Heller or another Republican would give the GOP a clear, albeit slight, advantage of incumbency in a highly competitive seat that could decide which party controls the Senate after next year's elections.
In could also shape the line-up of Nevada's four House contests in a year where President Barack Obama's re-election bid could turn out votes for other Democratic candidates.
Ensign announced in June 2009 that he had an extramarital affair with Cynthia Hampton, a former member of his campaign staff, and that he had helped her husband, Doug Hampton, a member of his Senate staff, obtain lobbying work with two Nevada companies.
Doug Hampton has been indicted for illegally lobbying the senator's staff. Federal law prohibits a former senior Senate aide from lobbying the Senate for one year after terminating employment.
The government watchdog group that requested the Senate ethics investigation said Ensign should have resigned sooner.
"Sadly, it's not because he's seen the error of his ways, or even to 'spend more time with his family," Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics executive director Melanie Sloan said in a statement Thursday. "The truth no one is likely to admit is that Sen. Ensign is being pushed out to give the Republican party a leg up in the 2012 election."
Ensign announced in March he would not pursue re-election in 2012 to protect his family from campaign attacks involving his role in Doug Hampton's lobbying career. He said last month that the Senate investigation hadn't influenced his decision.
"If I was concerned about that, I would have resigned, because that would make the most sense, because then it goes away," he said in March.
Associated Press writers Sandra Chereb in Carson City and David Espo in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.