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Sandoval says he will name choice to replace Ensign by May 3

WASHINGTON — Sen. John Ensign quietly submitted his formal letter of resignation on Friday while aspirants to higher office in Nevada positioned themselves for a frenzy in the months ahead.

On Capitol Hill, Ensign’s suite in the Russell Office Building was closed in observance of Easter. A spokeswoman said the letter, which Ensign declined to release, was delivered about 4:30 p.m. to Vice President Joe Biden.

The delivery solidified Ensign’s plan to leave office on May 3, a decision he announced on Thursday citing his desire to bring an end to a Senate ethics investigation focused on various issues linked to the extramarital affair he admitted in 2009. On Friday, new details emerged that underscored the Nevada Republican was leaving office a step ahead of the posse.

The two-term senator already had said he would not run for re-election next year. His immediate departure scrambled the timetables for a number of candidates considering runs for federal office.

Back in Nevada, the focus Friday was on the dominoes poised to start tumbling between now and when Ensign’s resignation becomes official.

Gov. Brian Sandoval said he will act quickly to appoint a replacement, and he sought — unsuccessfully — to quell speculation he intended to name Rep. Dean Heller, a friend and Republican ally. Sandoval said he expects to choose a successor before Ensign’s May 3 quitting date.

"I take very seriously the importance of this appointment, so to speculate on potential candidates for appointment before then would be premature," he said.

DEMOCRATS WANT OPEN PROCESS

Meanwhile, Democrats in the Legislature called attention to the partisan aspect of the appointment, which is allowed the governor by law. They said they would introduce a nonbinding concurrent resolution on Monday urging Sandoval to invite applicants and for the public to review them before he makes his pick.

"The Senate does not belong to any particular party; it belongs to the people of Nevada," said Assembly Speaker John Oceguera of Las Vegas. "This decision is too important not to be done in the light of day."

Sandoval spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner shrugged off the Democratic maneuver.

"The governor has already released his timeline for announcing the Senate appointment," Kinner said. "He intends to act in accordance with established law as he carries out this important responsibility."

Heller, who already is running for the Senate in the 2012 elections, did not comment Friday. Neither did Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., her party’s leading candidate for Senate.

Democrats say Berkley will continue as a candidate even though what was an open Senate seat when she announced her candidacy last week might turn into a seat occupied by her chief rival enjoying the benefits of incumbency.

Farther down the ballot, a Heller appointment would create a vacancy in the state’s U.S. House delegation. The post representing the sprawling 2nd Congressional District based in Washoe County would be filled through a special election required to be held within 180 days.

That is the race that is drawing a crowd, and the prospect of a relatively quick campaign is forcing potential candidates to speed decisions whether they are in or out.

At the same time, it is forcing Secretary of State Ross Miller to research the statutes because Nevada has never before held a special election for the House. While Nevada law calls for an election, it makes no provision for a primary. It might allow state party committees to pick their candidates through caucus.

Alternatively, it might allow a free-for-all, similar to a 2010 special election in Democratic-dominated Hawaii that included 14 candidates — five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents. There was no primary and no runoff and the winner was Republican Charles Djou because top Democrats split liberal votes.

"Look, all we know is there is going to be a (Senate) vacancy," said Robert Walsh, deputy secretary of state for Southern Nevada. "That is all we know for sure and beyond that everything is speculation. We are doing the research."

HOUSE RACE INTENSIFIES

State Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, announced Friday that he plans to run for the House and will file paperwork on Monday. Republican Party Chairman Mark Amodei was telling associates he still planned to get into the race.

Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki said he will consult with his family over the Easter holiday weekend and announce his decision early next week.

"I think if I’m in, people need to be aware of that, and if I’m out, people need to know as soon as possible," Krolicki said.

Retired U.S. Navy Commander Kirk Lippold, who announced last week that he was running for the seat, said Friday he is still in "regardless of election scenarios."

There was no word from potential Democratic candidates including former university Regent Jill Derby and state Treasurer Kate Marshall.

Also silent was Sharron Angle, a Republican declared candidate and Tea Party favorite widely considered to be a wild card .

If it is up to Republican Party leaders, Angle could find herself on the outside. The former assemblywoman from Reno has long been seen as a gadfly whose support has generated from the grass-roots. GOP strategists said she would be the last person party leaders would select.

The Tea Party Express, which funded Angle during an unsuccessful race for U.S. Senate last year, called on Sandoval to avoid creating a House vacancy by bypassing Heller and appointing a placeholder to the Senate such as former Gov. Bob List or former state Treasurer Bob Seale, who would serve until voters could decide on a senator in the November 2012 election.

"We are opposed to any process that favors political insiders over the views and interests of the conservative voters of the state," the group said in a statement.

One Republican strategist on Friday predicted Angle, who is a prodigious fundraiser, will fight to get on the ballot. A snub by party leaders "is not going to deter her one way or another."

"We already know she has money in the bank and she is full speed ahead," the strategist said. "We already know that Sharron does not care about the Republican establishment. She made her name by lambasting Republicans, not fighting Democrats."

NEW INVESTIGATION DETAILS

Meanwhile, back in Washington, new details emerged about the ethics investigation that prompted Ensign to call an abrupt end to his Senate career.

Multiple sources said a report broadcast Thursday on Twitter that said the Senate Ethics Committee voted this week to proceed to a new phase of the investigation was wrong. They noted that the Senate is in recess and committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Vice Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., are in China.

The committee remains in the initial evidence-gathering phase, but was nearing its end. The New York Times reported Ensign was scheduled to be deposed on May 4, a day after he set his Senate departure that will take him out of the committee’s jurisdiction.

The deposition would have been a final step before committee investigators pulled together their case on what was almost certain to be an ethics charge against the Nevadan, the newspaper reported. It said the panel was particularly interested in circumstances of a $96,000 check Ensign’s parents gave in April 2008 to the family of Cindy Hampton, his former lover.

Ensign attorney Robert L. Walker declined to comment on the report. Ensign, whose whereabouts were unknown this week, has maintained he broke no laws or Senate rules in his conduct.

And while Ensign’s resignation brings the investigation to an end, officials said it is still possible that the committee could issue a statement with details of evidence gathered during a 22-month investigation. Ethics experts said they could not recall the Senate ever taking such a step after a senator has left.

The committee also could refer its findings to the Justice Department for prosecution, which remains a possibility even though the department’s own investigation of Ensign, reportedly completed last fall, resulted in no criminal charges, sources said.

Meanwhile, Politico reported at least one former Ensign aide declined an offer of immunity for testifying against Ensign. A review of federal documents had indicated Ensign was paying legal bills for at least nine members or former members of his staff.

Ensign told friends he was "100 percent certain" the Ethics Committee was going to hold public hearings to air charges sure to create public embarrassment, Politico reported.

Ethics watchdogs are pressing the Ethics Committee to follow the Ensign case to its conclusion.

"It is critically important that the Ethics Committee follow through on their statement to complete this investigation so that the accurate, complete story can be made public," said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center. "Otherwise, the mud will have been swept under the rug."

Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Laura Myers and Ed Vogel of the Las Vegas Review-Journal contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Peter Urban at purban@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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