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.
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updated 4/22/2011 4:40:45 PM ET 2011-04-22T20:40:45

The Senate Ethics Committee said scandal-scarred Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign made the right decision to turn in a letter of resignation Friday as he faced an unrelenting, but as yet unfinished, two-year probe of his conduct.

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."

"Senator Ensign has made the appropriate decision," the statement said.

The committee cannot take disciplinary action against Ensign once he is no longer a senator, and, with the Senate in recess, it is unlikely that the committee will be able to do so before Ensign's May 3 resignation.

The committee could, however, issue an embarrassing statement on the propriety of Ensign's behavior after his departure and even go so far as to recommend a criminal investigation. Committee members do not have authority over federal investigators, and their request could be ignored.

Ensign, 53, cited "wear and tear" on himself and his family in his resignation announcement Thursday.

His decision 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 previously had 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.

Because of a quirk of Nevada politics, state leaders are uncertain about how to carry out the never-enforced special election law, which 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.

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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.

The timing of Ensign's announcement remains a mystery given his long insistence that he would not give up his seat.

Ensign initially said he would campaign for a third term, then announced in March he would not pursue re-election in 2012 to protect his family from campaign attacks involving his role in Doug Hampton's lobbying career. He said at the time that the Senate investigation hadn't influenced his decision.

"If I was concerned about that, I would have resigned, because that would make the most sense, because then it goes away," he said.

It was not immediately clear what, if anything, had changed since he made those remarks last month. An ethics committee official said Friday that neither a vote nor a public hearing had been scheduled in the Ensign investigation prior to his announcement.

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."

Sandoval declined to discuss his selection process Friday, but said he would name a successor while Ensign was still in office.

Berkley and Heller had been evenly matched, with their comparable political credentials and name recognition in Nevada. Wealthy businessman Byron Georgiou is also seeking the Democratic nomination.

But choosing Heller or another Republican would give the GOP a clear, albeit slight, advantage of incumbency in a highly competitive seat that could decide which party controls the Senate after next year's elections.

In could also shape the line-up of Nevada's four House contests in a year where President Barack Obama's re-election bid could turn out votes for other Democratic candidates.

State officials don't know how they would proceed in the event of a special election.

"The vacancies that we are talking about don't even exist yet," said Robert Walsh, deputy secretary of state for southern Nevada. "So we are going to use this time to do considerable research in order to have a well-considered legal opinion as to how to proceed. We will have that at the time that the vacancy actually exists."

Ensign announced 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 Senate staff, obtain lobbying work with two Nevada companies.

Doug Hampton has been indicted for illegally lobbying the senator's staff. Federal law prohibits a former senior Senate aide from lobbying the Senate for one year after terminating employment.

The government watchdog group that requested the Senate ethics investigation said Ensign should have resigned sooner.

"Sadly, it's not because he's seen the error of his ways, or even to 'spend more time with his family,'" Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics executive director Melanie Sloan said in a statement Thursday. "The truth no one is likely to admit is that Sen. Ensign is being pushed out to give the Republican party a leg up in the 2012 election."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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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