Image: John Ensign with wife Darlene
John Gurzinski  /  AP file
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. is shown with his wife, Darlene, announcing on March 7 in Las Vegas that he won't seek re-election.
NBC News and news services
updated 4/21/2011 11:48:57 PM ET 2011-04-22T03:48:57

Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, facing an ethics investigation over his affair with a former campaign aide, announced Thursday that he would resign his seat effective May 3.

Ensign said in a statement that he would send Vice President Joe Biden a letter Friday making the resignation official.

The 52-year-old Republican announced in March that he would not pursue re-election. He acknowledged 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 congressional staff, obtain lobbying work with a Nevada company.

The ethics investigation focuses in part on some $96,000 Ensign's parents gave to the Hamptons, which Ensign's attorney has characterized as a gift.

The Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission investigated, then dropped the cases with little explanation. The Senate ethics panel, however, named a special counsel to look into the matter.

Through it all, Ensign insisted he would seek re-election until his announcement in March, when he reiterated that he had not violated any laws or ethics rules. He also said at the time the investigation did not influence his decision to retire from politics after 2012.

But in his resignation notice Thursday, Ensign said the appointment of the special counsel shook him because he had hoped the investigation would end with the Justice Department.

"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," the statement said. "For my family and me, this continued personal cost is simply too great."

With Ensign gone from the Senate, the Ethics Committee will have no jurisdiction in the matter.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the committee, and GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, the committee's vice chairman, said in a statement Thursday that Ensign "made the appropriate decision" in stepping down.

"The Senate Ethics Committee has worked diligently for 22 months on this matter and will complete its work in a timely fashion," the senators said.

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Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval will now appoint someone to serve the remainder of Ensign's term, and choosing U.S. Rep. Dean Heller or another Republican would give the party the advantage of incumbency in a highly competitive seat that could decide which party controls the Senate after 2012.

Sandoval endorsed Heller minutes after his campaign announcement in March. Democratic U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley is also running and is considered the strongest Democratic contender.

Former Gov. Bob List, now a member of the Republican National Committee, urged the governor to appoint Heller to the seat as Nevada Democrats quickly began their campaign to influence Sandoval's decision.

"Nevada needs a senator who is focused on creating jobs and protecting our middle class, not ending Medicare as we know it and giving more tax breaks to the rich, like Dean Heller is trying to do," Nevada Democratic Party spokesman Zach Hudson said.

Ensign was the third Senate Republican to decide not to seek re-election, following Assistant Senate Republican Leader Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

How the affair began
The Hamptons were hired by Ensign in 2006 — Doug Hampton as a top aide in the Senate office and Cindy Hampton to work on the Ensign for Senate and Battle Born PAC campaign committees.

Ensign and Cindy Hampton began their affair in December 2007, according to accounts provided by Ensign's office and Doug Hampton. Doug Hampton discovered the affair through a text message and confronted Ensign on Christmas Eve, according to Hampton.

In April 2008, Ensign's parents, Mike and Sharon Ensign, gave the Hampton family $96,000. Ensign characterized the money as given "out of concern for the well-being of longtime family friends during a difficult time."

The Hamptons left Ensign's staff that May, but Doug Hampton began consulting for a firm founded by Ensign's closest adviser and run by former Ensign aides.

The affair didn't end until August 2008, according to Ensign. That same month, Doug Hampton was hired as an executive of Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, an airline run by Ensign political contributor Maurice Gallagher.

Ensign publicly acknowledged the affair on June 16, 2009, after Doug Hampton contacted Fox News about his story.

Doug Hampton was indicted this March 24 by a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., on charges he violated federal criminal conflict of interest laws.

This article contains reporting from NBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Video: Sen. John Ensign quits

  1. Closed captioning of: Sen. John Ensign quits

    >>> tonight's breaking news, nevada republican senator john ensign is resigning from office effective may 3. that's a week from tuesday. senator ensign had already announced he wouldn't seek re-election next year amid a senate ethics committee probe into his affair with a former campaign aide, cynthia hampton. in 2009 , senator ensign admitted the relationship and acknowledged helping cynthia hampton's husband, doug, a member of his senate staff, find lobbying work with two nevada companies. senator ensign's parents provided the hamptons with $96,000, which was described simply as a gift. in a statement released a short time ago, senator ensign said --

    >>> joining me now, " washington post " editorial writer and msnbc contributor jonathan capehart. thank you for joining me.

    >> thanks, lawrence.

    >> normally, when a senator under an ethics committee investigation takes the action of resigning, of leaving the senate before that investigation is concluded, before going to hearings, it means that the ethics committee has made it clear to the senator and the senator's lawyer that they will be recommending expulsion. that's exactly the last time we saw this with senator bob packwood . he was informed that they would recommend expulsion. the vote to expel would probably be successful, and so he got out. is there any indication tonight that the ethics committee had been moving toward expulsion and had let senator ensign know that their position would be to expel him?

    >> nothing that i've seen so far, lawrence. but i don't think that that's -- you know, that that's outside of realm of the possible. by resigning what, senator ensign has done is basically cut short whatever investigation the senates ethics committee had. because once the senator resigns, i mean, in his action as a sitting senator, once that senator goes, the ethics committee no longer has jurisdiction. and as senator ensign says in his letter, his resignation letter, he's been cleared by the justice department , or should say the justice department hasn't found any wrongdoing. also he was investigated by the federal elections commission . you know, he had probes up and down his conduct of what he did in this affair with the campaign staffer who was married to someone on his senate staff. and, you know, i just wrote a piece asking what took him so long. i mean, he announced in march that he wasn't going to run for re-election, and it couldn't possibly be a crisis of conscious that he decided suddenly that he didn't want to be in the senate .

    >> you know, i ran into senator ensign a few weeks ago in the senate . and he seemed, pardon the expression, quite resigned to a life without the senate and actually looking forward to it. he said he wasn't sure what he was going to do. but i certainly got no hint in my short chat with him that a resignation like this might be coming. now, to fill the seat that becomes open on may 3, what is the nevada process? does the governor appoint?

    >> yes, the governor appoints. in the constitution, the constitution says that if, say, a member of the house were to resign, a special election must be called. that is in the constitution. what's not in the constitution is what happens when a senator resigns. and right now, the way it is, and it depends state by state how they do it, but the senator -- i'm sorry, the governor appoints someone to fill that senate seat. and sometimes it could be until a special election . sometimes it could be until the end of the term, and that person would have to run. but what this sets up in nevada is a chain reaction. so governor brian sanderval, the new governor of nevada , is a republican. he is expected to appoint congressman dean heller , who is a republican. sharon angle has already announced that she was going to run to fill congressman heller 's seat, because he had already announced that he was going to run for the nomination for ensign's seat. so there will be a special election for his seat, and then heller would step in to ensign's seat, if sanderval follows through and does that. which would give heller a leg up in the 2012 election. he has a democratic opponent who has already announced, congresswoman shelley berkeley in nevada , who has said that she wants to run for ensign's seat. so what ends up happening now because of ensign's resignation, the governor gets to appoint ensign's successor. that's going to be a republican, most likely dean heller , and the democrat who has already announced that she was going to run for the race, congresswoman berkeley, is now finding herself running against presumably an incumbent in 2012 instead of an open seat .

    >> jonathan , as you just took us through the dominos falling there, my mind is reeling back now to realize that it is senator ensign who has been saving us from a possible congresswoman sharon engel in the opening up of this seat, if they in effect promote the congressman, sharon engel will actually be the first one in a campaign there.

    >> right. she has already announced that she was going to run for that seat in anticipation of something like this happening. she still has to run. now remember she lost to senate majority leader harry reid for the majority leader senate seat. so it's un -- maybe she'll have better luck in a smaller pool of voters. instead of the entire state. and getting into the halls of congress.

    >> and how much harm can she do in the house of representatives , right? that's what the voters of that district will be asking themselves as they watch michelle bachman , you know, prancing through there every day. " washington post " editorial writer and msnbc contributor jonathan capehart, thank you for joining us on this breaking news story.

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