Washington (CNN) - The Senate ethics committee announced the appointment of a special counsel to conduct its ongoing preliminary inquiry into allegations Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, may have violated Senate ethics rules in his dealings with a former staffer after Ensign had an affair with the staffer's wife.
The appointment comes about two months after Ensign announced that the Department of Justice told him he was no longer a target of its investigation into the matter and would not bring charges against him.
Carol Elder Bruce, an experienced former federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington DC, will head the probe. She has previously served as an Independent Counsel in the investigation of former Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Deputy Independent Counsel in the investigation of former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese. She is currently a partner at the law firm of K&L Gates LLP.
"The purpose of a preliminary inquiry is to determine whether there is substantial credible evidence that a violation within the Committee's jurisdiction occurred," said a news release issued on behalf of ethics committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-California, and Vice Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia. "The possible responses after a preliminary inquiry are dismissal of the allegations, a letter of admonition, or, for more serious violations, an adjudicatory review."
Ensign has admitted to having an affair with Cindy Hampton, a campaign aide and the wife of Ensign's former chief of staff Doug Hampton. Investigators are looking into efforts by Ensign to assist the Hampton family by providing a nearly $100,000 payment to them, arranging lobbying work for Doug Hampton, and possibly meeting with Doug Hampton on a lobbying matter in violation of Senate rules.