Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) announced he would call it quits on his Senate career today, capping a lengthy and sprawling scandal that began close to two years ago and at one point included a criminal investigation. In a press conference announcing the move, Ensign told reporters he had come to a decision only in recent weeks after determining it would be best for his family not to seek another term.
Ensign, a former member of the Republican Senate leadership and once considered a possible presidential contender, became a thorn in his party’s side during that time, lingering in office as details slowly emerged about his affair with a married campaign aide. The story broke in June 2009, when Ensign publicly admitted that he had a relationship with campaign staffer Cindy Hampton. Hampton’s husband, Doug Hampton, also worked for Ensign and the senator reportedly told colleagues at the time that his announcement was necessary to head off an extortion attempt by the man. Several lawmakers in whom he confided as a member of a Christian house in DC known as “C Street” reportedly urged him to come clean as well.“Last year I had an affair. I violated the vows of my marriage,” Ensign said at the time in his press conference. “It is the worst thing I have ever done in my life. If there was ever anything in my life that I could take back, this would be it.”
As the scandal progressed, the focus shifted to whether Ensign abused the powers of his office to cover up the affair. His parents paid $96,000 to the Hamptons as they left Ensign’s employ, prompting accusations from watchdog group CREW that the money constituted an illegal campaign contribution. The FEC dismissed the complaint. In October 2009, news broke that Ensign tried to help Doug Hampton secure work as a political consultant after the affair and later to find lobbying clients, prompting questions of whether the actions violated ethics laws.
The issue of whether Ensign acted improperly in securing cash and job assistance for the Hamptons prompted an investigation from the Department of Justice that Ensign told reporters ended in December 2010. His troubles were not over in the Senate however, where the Ethics Committee began its own probe this year.
Ensign faced long odds to retain his seat — polls showed him trailing badly to Rep. Dean Heller (R-NV) in a Republican primary. A number of Democrats, including Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV), are also reportedly considering runs.