Senate committee: Nevada Sen. John Ensign's resignation 'appropriate'

By Cristina Silva

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 22 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

Isaac Brekken, Associated Press

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."

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