The Washington Times - February 1, 2011, 01:47PM

The Senate ethics committee has hired an outside attorney to help in its preliminary investigation of a sex and lobbying scandal involving Sen. John Ensign.

The panel announced Tuesday that Carol Elder Bruce, a partner in the Washington office of the K&L Gates law firm, will serve as special counsel to the inquiry. She will work with the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics as it examines if Ensign, a Nevada Republican, broke Senate rules and/or federal law, and whether a higher level of review is needed.

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Ensign admitted in 2009 to having an affair with Cynthia Hampton, who was a member of his campaign staff at the time. When her husband, Doug Hampton, found out about the affair, the senator helped him set up as a lobbyist. Federal criminal law bars former Senate aides from lobbying in the Senate for a year after they leave their congressional jobs.

Ensign said he has similarly helped other members of his staff as they moved back into the private sector and that he had violated no law.

The Justice Department previously dropped a criminal investigation of Ensign.

The senator’s wealthy parents also paid his paramour and her family almost $96,000 “out of concern for the well-being of longtime family friends” but said the money didn’t come from campaign funds. The Ensigns and Hamptons had been friends for years.

The Federal Election Commission has dismissed a complaint against Ensign over the payment.

In a joint letter committee Chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, and Vice Chairman Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, wrote that the purpose of the preliminary inquiry “is to determine whether there is substantial credible evidence that a violation has occurred within the Committee’s jurisdiction has occurred.” Possible outcomes include dismissal of the accusations, a letter of admonition or an adjudicatory review, which would involve a formal investigation.

After the affair became public Ensign resigned as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, considered the fourth-ranking spot in the Senate Republican chain of command.

The two-term senator said he he will seek re-election next year.