Senate’s ethics panel could be unusually busy next year

It’s been nearly six years since the Senate Ethics Committee conducted a major investigation of a sitting senator. Next year, the panel could be working nonstop, deciding the fate of up to three lawmakers, including two facing allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.

The typically secretive committee of three Republicans and three Democrats said late Thursday it plans to resume its preliminary inquiry into alleged misconduct by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., whose federal bribery trial ended in a mistrial. The panel had begun an investigation in 2012, but deferred to the Justice Department for its probe.

Delving into the onslaught of allegations of sexual misconduct by powerful figures, the ethics panel is expected to investigate Minnesota Sen. Al Franken after a woman accused him of forcibly kissing her and groping her during a 2006 USO tour. Franken, a Democrat, has said he welcomes the probe.

The Senate is likely to enter uncharted territory on the case of Alabama’s Roy Moore, a Republican who faces multiple complaints from women who said he pursued them when they were teens and he was in his 30s. If Moore wins the Dec. 12 special election, the top Senate Republican says he would immediately face a formal ethics complaint.

“He would be sworn in and be asked to testify under oath and it would be a rather unusual beginning, probably an unprecedented beginning,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said this week at a Wall Street Journal event.

The flurry of activity is unusual for the panel, which until Thursday had not issued a press release since hiring a new staff director in 2014. The panel’s last major investigation focused on John Ensign, a Nevada Republican who resigned in 2011 after revelations that he had an affair with the wife of a top staffer.

Disclosure of the affair and Ensign’s actions to keep it quiet, including accusations that he helped the staffer find work as a lobbyist, resulted in investigations by the FBI, Federal Election Commission and the Senate. Ensign resigned as the two-year ethics investigation intensified.

The members of the committee have changed since then. The panel is chaired by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., is vice chairman. Other members are Republican Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Jim Risch of Idaho, along with Democrats Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

Robert L. Walker, a former chief counsel for the ethics panel, said senators…

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