ABC News' Matthew Jaffe reports:
The Senate Ethics Committee today appointed a special counsel to handle the probe of Sen. John Ensign, R-NV, a move that could prove damaging to his already imperiled re-election bid.
The panel's chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and top Republican Johnny Isakson of Georgia announced that Carol Elder Bruce will serve as special counsel, an unusual move for the committee.
Bruce is a partner in the Washington, DC office of the K&L Gates LLP law firm. She is also a former Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia.
The Senate Ethics panel is currently looking into allegations that Ensign violated Senate rules and federal law. Ensign, who is up for re-election in 2012, had an affair with a former campaign aide who was married to his deputy chief of staff.
"The purpose of a preliminary inquiry is to determine whether there is substantial credible evidence that a violation within the Committee’s jurisdiction has occurred," the Senate panel said in a statement today. "The possible responses after a preliminary inquiry are dismissal of the allegations, a letter of admonition, or, for more serious violations, an adjudicatory review. An adjudicatory review generally involves more formal proceedings, including notice to the Senator of the nature of the possible violations, a description of the evidence of such violations, and the right to a hearing before the Committee recommends disciplinary or other action."
Last year the Justice Department scrapped a criminal investigation into the Ensign matter.