By Paul Kane
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007
EDINA, Minn., Sept. 26 -- A Minnesota judge reacted skeptically Wednesday to Sen. Larry E. Craig's bid to withdraw his guilty plea to disorderly conduct in a Minneapolis airport restroom, asking why the Idaho Republican should be allowed to renew his defense.
Hennepin County District Judge Charles A. Porter said he would not rule on Craig's request until next week, and Craig softened his pledge to resign from the Senate by Sunday if his case was not resolved, announcing that he would remain in office "for now."
"Today was a major step in the legal effort to clear my name," Craig said. "The court has not issued a ruling on my motion to withdraw my guilty plea. For now, I will continue my work in the United States Senate for Idaho."
But in the small courtroom in this Minneapolis suburb, Porter noted that Craig admitted in August that his behavior in the restroom stall constituted a crime that "would arouse alarm or resentment of others."
"That's what he did in his petition -- admit what he did," the judge said during the 40-minute hearing.
Craig's attorney, Billy Martin, argued that the senator did not consult a lawyer before making his guilty plea, which he mailed to the court. At a hearing with a lawyer representing Craig, a judge would have asked the senator questions about the incident before accepting a plea, Martin said.
But Porter cut off the attorney, saying "my speculation" is that Craig wanted to plead guilty. "If he intended to plead guilty, he would have said 'yes' " to questions about whether he knew he had committed a crime, the judge said.
Craig, who was not in court, and his lawyers must convince Porter that it would be a "manifest injustice" under Minnesota law for the senator's plea not be overturned.
Martin argued that would be so because Craig's actions were merely "innocuous" behavior, but that there was no verbal or physical contact that rose to the level of disorderly conduct. "None of those facts, Your Honor, in and of themselves constitute a crime," he told Porter.
The judge said that, if he came down off the bench running at Martin, "shaking his fist" at Martin without ever punching him or yelling at him, it would likely prompt the attorney to think the judge was trying to incite him.
"It absolutely would," Martin said.
"Well, that's disorderly conduct," Porter replied.
The judge asked only one procedural question of the prosecutors who after the hearing expressed confidence. "We feel like we have a very strong case," said Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which oversees the airport police. "I think the facts are clear."
Craig was arrested in June during an undercover sting conducted by police in the Minneapolis airport. A police officer said that Craig, who was traveling between Idaho and Washington, entered an adjacent restroom stall. The officer, who had been responding to complaints about illicit sex in the restroom, said that Craig slid his foot toward him and reached under the stall waving his hand in the manner of gay men seeking sex.
The senator later said he "panicked" after his arrest and agreed to plead guilty to keep the case quiet because his home-state newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, was investigating his sexual orientation.
But the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call broke the story. In the firestorm that followed, Craig, who is married, called a news conference where said he is "not gay."
If Porter accepts the plea withdrawal and schedules a trial on the original charges later this year, Craig would have to fight the criminal charges and a Senate ethics investigation. Craig has said he will not seek reelection in 2008 regardless of the outcome of his criminal case.
The ethics committee's investigation, which will not continue if Craig resigns, was demanded by the GOP leadership. Within days of the revelation of Craig's guilty plea, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) led a political assault on the three-term senator that included stripping him of his senior committee posts, calling for the ethics investigation and privately forcing him to announce his intention to resign.
McConnell declined to comment on Craig's plans to stay beyond his self-imposed resignation deadline.