By Paul Kane
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Senate Republican leaders called for an ethics investigation of Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) yesterday as he dug in for a legal and political fight to save his congressional career after acknowledging that he had pleaded guilty to disorderly-conduct charges stemming from an incident with an undercover police officer in an airport men's room.
Craig denied doing anything wrong and said he had "overreacted" in pleading guilty after his June 11 arrest at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He said that he is "not gay" and vowed to continue to serve in the Senate.
"While I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct at the Minneapolis airport or anywhere else, I chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge in the hope of making it go away," Craig, 62, told reporters in Boise, Idaho.
He said that he has retained a lawyer to review his guilty plea, though earlier this month he signed court papers declaring that he had read the police report of the incident and understood the nature of the crime and he paid a $500 fine. Legal experts said that would make any challenge difficult.
Craig said yesterday that he pleaded guilty because his hometown newspaper, the Idaho Statesman of Boise, had been conducting an eight-month investigation into his sexual orientation. He said he hoped that quietly resolving the case -- without telling any of his family members, friends, staffers or colleagues -- would settle the matter without bringing it to light for what he called the newspaper's "witch hunt."
"Let me be clear: I am not gay. I never have been gay," he said.
Senate Republican leaders issued a rare joint statement minutes before Craig's news conference, complaining that none of them had been told of his legal troubles until yesterday. The senators asked the ethics committee to investigate the matter, vowing to consider other punitive sanctions.
"This is a serious matter. Due to the reported and disputed circumstances, and the legal resolution of this serious case, we will recommend that Senator Craig's incident be reported to the Senate Ethics Committee for its review. In the meantime, leadership is examining other aspects of the case to determine if additional action is required," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.) and three other elected leaders said.
The only GOP leader not on the statement is Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.); he is the vice chairman of the ethics panel, to which Craig's case is being referred.
In his statement, Craig repeatedly apologized to his family, friends, staff and constituents, but not to Senate colleagues.
Yesterday, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R), whose Idaho presidential campaign Craig headed until the charges came to light, compared Craig's behavior to President Bill Clinton's encounter with a White House intern and to the case of Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who resigned from the House of Representatives last year in a scandal involving male pages.
"I think it reminds us of the fact that people who are elected to public office continue to disappoint, and they somehow think that if they vote the right way on issues of significance or they can speak a good game, that we'll just forgive and forget," Romney said on CNBC's "Kudlow & Company." "We've seen disappointment in the White House, we've seen it in the Senate, we've seen it in Congress. And frankly, it's disgusting."
Craig was once a rising star in the GOP. In the early 1990s, he chaired the informal Steering Committee, a group of conservatives who pushed a right-wing agenda because they were leery of their moderate Republican elders.
In 1996, Craig was elected Republican Policy Committee chairman, the No. 4 leadership post. He held it through 2002, when he lost a bid against McConnell to claim the Republican whip's post, the No. 2 leadership spot. Like most fellow Republicans, Craig has opposed gay rights, voting in favor of a federal ban on same-sex marriage several times in recent years.
Craig is now fighting a multi-front battle -- first and foremost, a long-shot bid to undo his guilty plea and the likely ethics probe, while trying to shore up support among constituents should he decide to seek a fourth six-year term in 2008. He said he will announce his decision next month.
Craig was arrested at the airport while changing flights on his way to Washington. Police said that they were investigating complaints of sexual encounters by men in a restroom at the airport, and that an undercover officer was in a restroom stall when Craig sat in the stall next to him. The officer said in his arrest report that Craig began tapping his right foot, touched his right foot to the left foot of the officer and brushed his hand beneath the partition between them. The senator was then arrested.
Craig said yesterday that he agreed to plead guilty because of the pressure he felt from the newspaper's investigation. "I overreacted in Minneapolis, because of the stress of the Idaho Statesman's investigation and the rumors it has fueled around Idaho," Craig said in his statement. He took no questions from reporters.
The paper reported on rumors -- fueled by a gay activist's report last fall that was based on anonymous sources -- that Craig had engaged in restroom sexual encounters with other men, including an unnamed man the Statesman quoted in its report as saying he had sex with Craig in a restroom at Washington's Union Station. In an interview with the newspaper in May, which was published yesterday, Craig denied having had gay sexual encounters and specifically denied restroom encounters.
"I'm going to have to leave it up to other people to weigh the care we took. I'm a bit disappointed" with Craig's complaints, said Vicki Gowler, the paper's top editor. "We were quite responsible, and we took great care with the story."
In his guilty plea, according to court records, Craig acknowledged engaging in physical "conduct which I knew or should have known tended to arouse alarm or resentment of others." Criminal defense lawyers said it could be difficult for Craig to have the case reopened.
Successful motions to withdraw guilty pleas usually meet a high threshold, such as showing that the person was misled into entering the plea, that his constitutional rights were violated or that there was wrongdoing by prosecutors, said Minneapolis lawyer Peter B. Wold.
But Craig's written plea detailed the charges related to the airport incident and specified that he knew that the judge could not accept a guilty plea from a person who felt he was innocent, and that he was making no claim of innocence.
If successful in overturning his plea, Craig will probably face a public trial, Wold said.
Staff writers Robert Barnes and Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.