Ensign faces more scrutiny

After more than a year of investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee has taken the rare step of appointing a special prosecutor to handle the ethics probe of Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign and his affair with a staff member.

Sen. Ensign was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by the Justice Department in December, and the Federal Election Commission decided to drop an investigation of whether campaign finance laws were broken.

The appointment announced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the committee chairwoman, threatens to continue the probe into 2012, when Sen. Ensign has indicated he plans to seek re-election. This is the first time in two decades the Senate ethics panel has elected to name a special prosecutor, which may mean the panel is about to enter an adjudicatory review phrase that could lead to public hearings.

Sen. Boxer was quoted as saying, “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. This is what we’re doing and to have the expertise we need.”

The question is whether this move will in fact expedite or simply further drag out the matter.

Although the Constitution gives both the House and the Senate the power to punish or expel members for disorderly behavior, the voters of Nevada would be better served if the veil of ongoing secrecy in this grand jury-like preliminary inquiry could be lifted and the facts laid out prior to the start of election season. It is unfair to the voters, not to mention Sen. Ensign, to have this matter dally behind closed doors.

The facts are unsavory enough as it is. Sen. Ensign admitted in June 2009 that he had a months-long affair with Cindy Hampton, a Las Vegas family friend who also was his campaign treasurer and whose husband, Doug Hampton, was the senator’s administrative assistant. It was later revealed the senator’s parents wrote checks, described as gifts, to members of the Hampton family totaling $96,000, and that the senator spoke to others about Doug Hampton being employed as a lobbyist despite rules requiring a cooling-off period.

The voters of Nevada are perfectly capable of determining whether Sen. Ensign should be expelled and replaced, whether his conservative voting record outweighs, or not, any moral turpitude and character flaws — if they can simply be handed the unvarnished facts.

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