Published Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011 | 7:56 a.m.
Updated Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011 | 12:01 p.m.
As Sen. John Ensign takes steps in Washington today to shore up his re-election campaign, the Senate Ethics Committee is taking a step that signals it's still moving forward with an inquiry that could tank his 2012 run.
The Senate Ethics Committee announced Tuesday it has appointed a special counsel as part of its preliminary inquiry into allegations that Ensign misused his power, money and influence as a U.S. senator to cover up an affair he had with a campaign aide who was also the wife of one of his closest advisers.
Carol Elder Bruce comes from the K&L Gates law firm's Washington, D.C., office, where she specialized in "white collar criminal defense, complex civil litigation, and congressional investigations" according to a statement released by the Ethics Committee.
A preliminary inquiry is not an indictment; the result of an inquiry could be anything from dropping allegations to pursuing charges. Ensign shook off other investigations at the end of last year, including an inquiry by the Department of Justice, and a petition made to the Federal Elections Commission, which they declined to pursue.
But the appointment of a special counsel seems a clear sign that the Ethics Committee has no intention of dropping the case anytime soon.
Ensign's lawyer in the Senate Ethics Inquiry, Robert Walker, said the announcement that the committee had hired a new counsel barely changes anything.
"The Senate Ethics Committee has assured Senator Ensign that their inquiry remains in the preliminary stage and that the appointment of a special counsel does not change the course of its inquiry," he said "Senator Ensign is confident that he complied with all ethics rules and laws, and he is hopeful that this appointment will lead to a more speedy resolution of this matter."
Walker added that Ensign's office plans to continue to cooperate with the inquiry process.
Ensign, whose name was once being tossed about for a presidential run, ran aground politically in 2009, when he announced he had had an affair with Cynthia Hampton, a campaign aide whose husband, Doug Hampton, had been Ensign deputy chief of staff.
Ensign's parents paid the Hamptons and their two children $96,000, and Ensign allegedly assisted Doug Hampton in finding alternate employment -- moves that may have broken Senate rules.