Despite Court Defeat, Craig Vows to Remain in Senate

By Paul Kane Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007

Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) vowed to serve out the remainder of his term yesterday despite losing his bid to withdraw his guilty plea for disorderly conduct in an airport men's restroom.

Craig, who said earlier that he would resign if unable to withdraw his plea, said he is considering appealing yesterday's decision by a Minnesota judge. The judge ruled that some of the senator's legal arguments were "illogical."

"As I continued to work for Idaho over the past three weeks here in the Senate, I have seen that it is possible for me to work here effectively," Craig said in a statement. "I will continue my effort to clear my name in the Senate Ethics Committee -- something that is not possible if I am not serving in the Senate."

The reversal stunned his colleagues, particularly Republican leaders, who had hoped to put the politically embarrassing episode behind them. Craig initially said he would resign Sept. 30, then said he would stay on as his legal case continued. His announcement yesterday -- that he does not plan to leave office until his term ends in January 2009 -- left GOP senators furious.

"I believe the best thing for him to do is keep his word," said Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Ensign, who worked behind the scenes in late August to pressure Craig's original resignation statement, said an ethics investigation would be difficult for Craig and his family.

"It's embarrassing for the Senate, it's embarrassing for his party," Ensign said.

Other GOP senators agreed. "He ought to keep his word," said Tom Coburn (Okla.). And Norm Coleman (Minn.) said, "I thought the original decision was the right thing to do."

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who led the political assault on Craig by calling for an investigation by the ethics panel, would say only: "That matter is before the ethics committee. It will be dealt with, I assume, by Senator Craig and the ethics committee."

Republicans are powerless to enforce any other internal punishment against Craig until the ethics panel completes its inquiry. They have already stripped him of his senior positions on committees, including the top Republican post on the Veterans Affairs Committee and a top post on an Appropriations Committee panel dealing with Western land issues, but he remains a rank-and-file member of those panels.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the ethics committee, said yesterday that in cases such as Craig's the panel continues with the investigations "as long as the person is here in the Senate and there's a complaint pending."

In his ruling yesterday, Hennepin County District Court Judge Charles A. Porter rejected Craig's request to withdraw his plea, writing in a 27-page ruling that Craig pleaded guilty because he wanted to plead guilty.

"The defendant chose to not appear [in court] and to enter his plea by mail just so he could avoid any such [publicity], of record, inquiry into his conduct," Porter wrote, underlining the last portion of his sentence for emphasis. "He kept many of the facts out of the record in so doing. He cannot now complain that he should not have been allowed to take advantage of an approved method to enter a misdemeanor plea."

Craig said that he is "extremely disappointed with the ruling" and that his lawyers will "explore my additional legal options."

Andrew Birrell, a defense lawyer in Minneapolis, said that Craig could go to the Minnesota Court of Appeals to try to overturn Porter's ruling but that such an effort may be "insurmountable." Under Minnesota law, Craig has to prove that a "manifest injustice" occurred in his guilty plea and, now, that Porter erred in his ruling. Birrell said a normal appeal process takes four to six months.

Craig's announcement that he is staying in office is the latest turn in a nearly six-week saga, beginning with the revelation Aug. 27 that earlier in the month he quietly pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct stemming from a June 11 arrest in a sting operation at a men's restroom at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

After his arrest and guilty plea became public, Craig said at a news conference that his actions -- tapping his foot, bumping the foot of an undercover officer and swiping his hand under the stall divider -- were innocent gestures and not, as the officer alleged, solicitations for sex.

The senator said he "overreacted" by pleading guilty because his hometown newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, was investigating his sexual orientation. "I am not gay," he said.

Then, on Sept. 1, in what his colleagues thought was his full resignation, Craig said he would step down because his case "would be an unwanted and unfair distraction of my job and for my Senate colleagues."

The next week he asked a Minnesota judge to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea and said he would stay in office until the case was resolved.

In recent weeks, Craig's fellow senators have been outwardly genial when they meet him in the Capitol. On his first day back on Capitol Hill after his case became public, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) engaged him in a lengthy chat on the chamber floor about legislation they worked on together.

Yesterday, Craig said part of the reason he is staying in the Senate is his "important committee assignments that are valuable to Idaho," including positions on the Appropriations panel and the Energy and Natural Resources panel. If he were to resign now, he said, "a replacement would be highly unlikely to obtain these posts." He was not present yesterday evening for a vote on an appropriations bill.

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