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Ensign Could Still Face Ethics Panel Rebuke

Sen. John Ensign’s abrupt resignation spares him the spectacle of public hearings airing the details surrounding his affair with a former aide, but the Ethics Committee appears likely to publicly rebuke his conduct nonetheless.

Ethics Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Vice Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) issued a brief but telling joint statement Thursday night saying that the Nevada Republican made the “right decision” to resign, but also making clear that they would wrap up their work in a “timely” fashion after an exhaustive 22-month inquiry.

The Ethics panel loses its ability to formally discipline Ensign after his resignation takes effect May 3, but it can still issue a public report on his conduct or refer its findings to law enforcement if the panel believes a crime may have been committed.

Ensign cited the spectacle of an airing of his dirty laundry during public hearings as a reason for his abrupt resignation, which comes a month and a half after he announced he would not run for re-election.

The final stages of an ethics case typically include a deposition from the Senator followed by public hearings.

For the Senate panel, the question now may be how harshly to rebuke Ensign for not only his behavior, but also for how he has treated the ethics process itself. Up to the end, Ensign said his actions had not violated “any law, rule or standard of conduct of the Senate” — something Boxer and Isakson implicitly disagree with in their statement.

Campaign Legal Center Policy Director Meredith McGehee released a statement Friday urging the Ethics panel to continue moving forward on the Ensign matter.

“With the Justice Department and Federal Election Commission having punted, 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” McGehee said. “Otherwise, the mud will have been swept under the rug.”

Last month, as Ensign announced that he would not run for re-election, he talked about there being “consequences to sin.” But his resignation announcement itself contained no hint of an apology or responsibility for his conduct.

Ensign has admitted to having an affair with Cynthia Hampton, then a campaign aide and the wife of a senior aide and friend, Doug Hampton. After the affair was discovered by Doug Hampton but before it was made public, the Hamptons left Ensign’s payroll, but Ensign’s parents reportedly sent the Hamptons $96,000. Doug Hampton then started lobbying and has alleged that Ensign helped him line up clients.

Regardless of what the ethics panel decides to do, the case could still get a public airing in court.

Doug Hampton pleaded not guilty earlier this month to charges he violated federal revolving-door laws.

Meanwhile, unrelated to the ethics probe, Ensign’s departure gives Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a plum assignment to dole out — a seat on the powerful Finance Committee.

Republicans on and off Capitol Hill said they expect Isakson to get the nod, but many other Republicans could also be eyeing the prized slot on the committee, which has sprawling jurisdiction including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and taxes.

Isakson missed out earlier this year when Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), both also from the 2004 class of Senators, were named to the panel instead.

Also uncertain is whether conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will seek the post. DeMint is also from the 2004 class, and in 2008 the conservative Club for Growth, then under the leadership of now-Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), waged an unsuccessful campaign along with other conservative groups to get McConnell to install DeMint on the panel. At the same time, the club pushed Republican leaders to name Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to the Appropriations Committee. Flake at first was passed over, but he was named to Appropriations last year after the party took back the House.

Aides to McConnell declined to comment on the soon-to-be vacant Finance slot.

David M. Drucker contributed to this report.