WASHINGTON -- The Senate Ethics Committee has moved to jump-start its investigation of Sen. John Ensign, hiring a former federal prosecutor as a special counsel in the yearlong probe of the Nevada Republican.
Carol Elder Bruce, a nationally recognized attorney who focuses on white-collar crime and complex litigation, will join the investigation, said committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Vice Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
The appointment is a surprise development in a Senate investigation ongoing since late 2009. Outside attorneys said Bruce, a lead counsel in more than 100 jury trials, was probably brought in to review the Ethics Committee staff's work, lead the case forward and bring it to a conclusion -- one way or another.
The case reportedly centers on Ensign's admitted extramarital affair in 2007-2008 with his campaign treasurer Cindy Hampton and his efforts to set up her husband, Doug, a top Ensign aide, as a lobbyist after the relationship was discovered.
The Hamptons were longtime friends with Ensign and his wife . As the Hamptons were leaving Ensign's employ in the spring of 2008, his parents gave them $96,000, which is being investigated as possible hush money. The Ensigns call it a gift.
Boxer would say little about the reasons for appointing a special counsel.
"The committee, on a bipartisan basis, decided this was an appropriate step," Boxer told The Washington Post. "The committee has done a lot of work, and at this stage, we think it's appropriate in order to expedite things, to move it through."
Ensign attorney Rob Walker in a statement Tuesday said the Ethics Committee "has assured Senator 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."
"Senator 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," Walker said.
Ensign said he was hopeful the appointment "speeds things up. We'd like to get this thing resolved as quickly as possible, and we are hoping that is the way things end up working out for us."
The Ethics Committee announcement came as Ensign met with political aides and fundraisers to plan his 2012 re-election campaign. It underscores that Ensign remains under a cloud though the Justice Department completed its investigation late last year without bringing charges.
After the strategy meeting, Ensign said he plans a Washington fundraiser today and is working on some in Nevada, including at least one in April.
The event today is a dinner with admissions of $500 to $2,500, sponsored by the political action committees of AT&T and Clear Channel Communications, chief Microsoft lobbyist Frank Cavaliere and technology consultant Bryan Cunningham, a former Ensign aide, according to an invitation.
But as Ensign attempts to regroup from scandal, his fundraising has continued to tread water. He raised $14,150 from Oct. 1 through the end of the year while tapping his campaign bank account for $56,119 for legal bills.
Ensign had $224,696 in his campaign account, according to the latest campaign finance report, which became available Tuesday. Ensign has said he plans to raise $1 million by the end of June.
Senate Ethics Committee leaders confirmed the Ensign case is still in the preliminary phase, meaning the panel is gathering evidence but is not yet at the point where it can decide to go on to a penalty phase that could include public hearings and formal admonishment or to dismiss the allegations.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that filed ethics complaints against Ensign, said Bruce's appointment is puzzling.
"Obviously the committee is taking this very seriously," Sloan said. "What I don't understand, though, is why it has taken over a year. Once they get a complaint, they can engage in an investigation that includes taking depositions and sworn statements, and they already did all that."
Bringing in outside attorneys to participate in ethics case has become rare. According to Senate records and news reports, the Ethics Committee last hired special counsels in 1989 for cases involving Sen. Al D'Amato, R-N.Y., Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn., and the "Keating Five" investigation of Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., Alan Cranston, D-Calif., Donald Riegle, D-Mich., and John Glenn, D-Ohio.
The Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission have said they will not seek criminal charges, but the Senate Ethics Committee has a broader charge to investigate and render judgment on any behavior that might cast the Senate in a bad light.
The ethics investigation is not focused specifically on whether the senator's actions were serious enough to warrant a federal criminal trial but on issues connected to congressional rules governing what a senator can do to help former senior aides in the lobbying field.
Also, the Ethics Committee can simply declare that a senator engaged in "conduct unbecoming" of the institution, as the panel declared in its 1995 report recommending the expulsion of then-Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., for sexual misconduct.
Under Senate rules, the "preliminary inquiry" stage is similar to a grand jury investigation. But the appointment of an outside legal team suggests the case could be more far-reaching. If the preliminary inquiry uncovers "substantial credible evidence" that a serious rules breach has occurred, the committee is required to open an "adjudicatory review" that would require the panel to hire outside counsel to lead what amounts to a trial phase of the investigation.
Bruce has been a fixture in the Washington legal scene since the 1970s and took part in two high-profile investigations of top officials under the federal independent counsel law. In 1998, she was appointed independent counsel to investigate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who was accused of denying a casino license to an Indian tribe in Wisconsin in exchange for political favors. Her investigation cleared him of wrongdoing.
In 1987, Bruce was a top assistant to independent counsel James McKay in his investigation of Attorney General Edwin Meese on tax and conflict of interest allegations.
The Washington Post also contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.