SENATE HIRES SPECIAL COUNSEL FOR ENSIGN SCANDAL…. For the better part of 2010, Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada faced the kind of problem that tends to destroy political careers: his sex/corruption/ethics scandal had drawn the attention of the FBI, and the senator was the subject of a federal criminal investigation.

As the year came to a close, Ensign received some good news — federal investigators had decided his wrongdoing did not warrant a criminal indictment. The problem for the conservative senator, though, is that the FBI wasn’t the only one looking into his misdeeds.

The Senate Ethics Committee on Tuesday hired a special counsel for its investigation of Sen. John Ensign, but individuals on and off Capitol Hill cautioned the decision is not necessarily an indication of a more serious inquiry.

The Ethics Committee announced Tuesday that attorney Carol Elder Bruce, a partner at the law firm K&L Gates, will serve as special counsel in the inquiry, which has been ongoing since at least October 2009.

Although the committee is permitted to hire special counsel, the panel rarely invokes that option and has not done so in nearly two decades.

Senate Ethics Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) indicated yesterday that the hiring of a special counsel isn’t necessarily a sign that the probe has intensified, but rather, is intended to “expedite” the inquiry.

To briefly recap for those who’ve forgotten, Ensign’s humiliation came to public attention in June 2009, when we learned the conservative, “family-values” senator carried on a lengthy extra-marital relationship with one of his aides, who happened to be married to another one of his aides. Ensign’s parents tried to pay off the mistress’ family.

The scandal grew far worse when we learned that the Republican senator pushed his political and corporate allies to give lobbying contracts to his mistress’s husband. When Douglas and Cynthia Hampton left Ensign’s employ — because, you know, the senator was sleeping with Cynthia — Ensign allegedly took steps to help them make up the lost income, leaning on corporate associates to hire Douglas as a lobbyist, and ignoring ethics laws that restrict how quickly former aides can begin lobbying careers.

For whatever reason, federal investigators found that Ensign’s wrongdoing didn’t warrant prosecution, but the standards aren’t the same for the Senate ethics committee.

Ensign is up for re-election next year, and intends to run again.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.