By Paul Kane
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Sen. Larry E. Craig yesterday sought to withdraw his guilty plea to misdemeanor disorderly conduct in an airport men's restroom, saying he had been "deeply panicked" that the incident would prompt a home-state newspaper to publish allegations that he is gay.
The Idaho Republican wrote in a sworn statement that he never engaged in "offensive, obscene, abusive, boisterous or noisy conduct" in the restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on June 11, when he was arrested in a sex sting that led to demands from many Republicans that the three-term senator resign. Craig has said that if he cannot overturn the guilty plea by a self-imposed Sept. 30 deadline, he intends to step down.
Craig's attorneys filed motions in Hennepin County District Court asking for a speedy hearing and arguing that the plea should be waived because the undercover officer who arrested Craig had promised the senator he would not call the news media -- a major concern to Craig because the Idaho Statesman newspaper had been investigating his sexual orientation after allegations from a gay rights activist.
"Deeply panicked about the events, and based on [the officer's] representations to me regarding the potential outcome, my interest in handling the matter expeditiously, and the risk that protracting the issue could lead to unnecessary publicity, I did not seek the advice of an attorney . . . and I made the decision on that date to seek a guilty plea," Craig said in his statement filed with the court.
Led by high-profile lawyer Billy Martin, Craig's attorneys contend that the officer's promise of keeping the case quiet was improper and should lead to a judge allowing the plea to be withdrawn.
The second point of Craig's legal argument is that the facts of the case do not constitute a crime. Craig is accused of using signals that police said are known to men seeking sexual encounters in restrooms, including tapping his feet, bumping one foot into a foot of the undercover officer in the stall next to him and swiping his hand under the partition dividing the stalls. The lawyers argue that that was the officer's interpretation of Craig's actions and that no inappropriate behavior occurred.
"Viewed in its worst light, [Craig's conduct] doesn't even rise to the level of annoying, much less disorderly," Martin and Thomas M. Kelly, Craig's Minnesota-based attorney, said in the court filing.
The motions also argue that Craig is not a lawyer and so his plea was "not knowingly and understandingly made." Craig is a rancher and has served on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the federal judiciary and criminal procedures.
Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said the airport police plan to "strenuously defend our case in court" and will soon file a written response to Craig's motion. "The police officer acted appropriately and used standard investigative procedures," Hogan said. "Our intent is to ask the judge to uphold the plea that the senator has already agreed to."
Andrew S. Birrell, a criminal lawyer in Minnesota, said Craig's attorneys appeared to be trying to show that the plea was coerced by the undercover officer. He said that might meet the requirement in Minnesota law that withdrawal of a guilty plea can occur only to correct a "manifest injustice."
"To correct a manifest injustice is a very high standard in the law. These are not frequently granted requests," Birrell said.
The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported on the plea deal Aug. 27, sparking widespread criticism of Craig by his fellow Republicans, including a call by the Senate GOP leadership for an ethics committee investigation.
In the week after the revelation, Craig declared "I am not gay," denounced the Idaho Statesman for a "witch hunt" into his sexuality and announced his "intent" to resign Sept. 30, only to say days later that he would serve out the remainder of his term, through 2008, if he could get the guilty plea withdrawn by the end of the month.
That timing may be difficult. Birrell said that there is a chance a ruling on the plea could come by Sept. 30 but that the best Craig could then hope for would be a "speedy trial," which under Minnesota law would mean a trial starting within 60 days.