WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- The U.S. Senate Ethics Committee said Tuesday a special counsel will look into Sen. John Ensign's affair with a campaign aide and payments to her family.
The committee announced it has hired Carol Elder Bruce to investigate the Nevada Republican's affair with Cynthia Hampton and subsequent payments of $96,000 to her and her family. It is the first time since the 1990s that the panel has used a special counsel in an investigation of a Senate member, The Washington Post reported.
Ensign said in December the U.S. Justice Department had notified him it was no longer investigating the matter, and the Federal Election Commission dropped a complaint in the case in November.
Ensign has said he plans to run for a third term in 2012. He told the Post in an interview Tuesday he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
"The Justice Department saw it that way; FEC saw it that way, that I broke no laws," he said. "And I don't think I broke any Senate ethics rules, and we're hoping they see it the same way."
Ensign has acknowledged giving $96,000 to Hampton and her family, but said it was a gift made out of concern for the well-being of family friends.
"None of the gifts came from campaign or official funds, nor were they related to any campaign or official duties," the senator said in a statement issued by his lawyer. "Senator Ensign has complied with all applicable laws and Senate ethics rules."
The payments were made to Cynthia Hampton, her husband Doug and their two children. Cynthia Hampton had been treasurer for two Ensign-controlled campaign committees. Doug Hampton had been a senior staffer in Ensign's Senate office. He claims he and wife lost their jobs with the senator because of the affair.
Ensign told the Post Tuesday his re-election campaign will be "exceptionally ugly" and he could face a Republican challenge in the primary.