MINNEAPOLIS — Idaho Sen. Larry Craig lost a bid Thursday to withdraw his guilty plea in a men’s room sex sting but defiantly vowed to finish his Senate term, prolonging a headache for Republican leaders already facing a tough political climate.
Craig had announced plans to resign his seat by Sept. 30 but wavered when he went to court in hopes of withdrawing his plea. He issued a statement Thursday on staying in the Senate shortly after Republican Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter relayed word that he had selected a replacement for Craig in the event of a vacancy.
“I have seen that it is possible for me to work here effectively,” Craig said in a written statement that disappointed fellow Republicans who have urged him to step down. Craig, 62, said he will not seek a fourth term in November 2008.
“He is ready to act should we receive a letter of resignation,” said Jon Hanian, Otter’s spokesman.
Craig said in his 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.”
Senate ethics panel reviewing case
The bipartisan ethics panel has already signaled it is reviewing details of Craig’s case, a step requested by Senate Republican leaders. His decision to stay and fight raises the strong possibility of public hearings — almost certain to be televised — centered on the issue of gay sex.
Senate Republicans made clear they wish Craig would leave office and let them forget the episode that has fueled jokes on late-night television for weeks. Idaho is likely to remain in the GOP column after next year’s election, but Craig’s insistence on finishing his term was received frostily by colleagues.
“Senator Craig gave us his word” that he would resign by Sept. 30 if he could not overturn the guilty plea, said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who chairs the GOP campaign committee overseeing next year’s Senate elections. “I wish he would stick to his word.
“It’s embarrassing for the Senate, it’s embarrassing for his party,” Ensign said. Asked if Craig staying would be a distraction for the party, Ensign said: “It may be a personal distraction for me.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — who called Craig’s actions “unforgivable” when they first became public — had little to say Thursday. “That whole matter is before the Senate Ethics Committee and will be dealt with by Senator Craig and the Ethics Committee,” he told reporters.
Men's room incident
Craig was arrested June 11 in a men’s room in the Minneapolis airport by an undercover officer. The officer, Sgt. Dave Karsnia, said Craig had exhibited behavior consistent with seeking a sexual encounter.
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His arrest and guilty plea were reported Aug. 27 by Roll Call.
In his ruling Thursday, Hennepin County Judge Charles Porter wrote: “Because the defendant’s plea was accurate, voluntary and intelligent, and because the conviction is supported by the evidence ... the defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea is denied.”
Craig said he had panicked when arrested and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct because an Idaho newspaper had been aggressively investigating allegations that he was gay. Craig says he is not gay.
Porter rejected that as a good reason to withdraw the plea. Any pressure Craig was under “was entirely perceived by the defendant and was not a result of any action by the police, the prosecutor, or the court,” he wrote.
Craig’s lawyer, Billy Martin, issued a statement saying his client was considering whether to appeal the ruling.
“Senator Larry Craig maintains that he is innocent and there is insufficient evidence to support a finding that he is guilty,” Martin said. “Thus, we renew our arguments that it is manifestly unjust to deny Senator Craig’s request to withdraw his guilty plea. Senator Craig continues his steadfast denial that any inappropriate behavior took place at the airport.”
Craig says he is innocent
Craig, in his separate statement, said he was disappointed in the ruling. “I am innocent of the charges against me,” he said.
Craig, a conservative with close ties to gun rights groups, said that during five terms in the House and three in the Senate, “I have accumulated seniority and important committee assignments that are valuable to Idaho.”
He did not mention that at the request of his party’s leaders, he relinquished the GOP leadership posts on his current committees.
Minnesota law allows a plea to be withdrawn if a “manifest injustice” occurs.
“It is not a manifest injustice to force the defendant to be bound by his plea bargain and the waivers and admissions which he made in conjunction with the execution of that bargain,” Porter wrote.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Craig’s closest ally in the Senate, said Craig “has the right to pursue his legal options as does any citizen, and I support his effort. I look forward to serving with him as we continue to work on issues important to Idaho.”
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who had encouraged Craig to try to overturn his plea, told reporters Thursday that his colleague had the right to stay in office. “Disorderly conduct is not moral turpitude,” Specter said, “and is not a basis for leaving the Senate.”
Details of bathroom arrest
The official police complaint on Craig’s case said Karsnia went into a stall shortly after noon and closed the door. Minutes later, the officer said, he saw Craig gazing into his stall through the crack between the door and the frame.
After a man in the adjacent stall left, Craig entered it and put his roller bag against the front of the stall door, “which Sgt. Karsnia’s experience has indicated is used to attempt to conceal sexual conduct by blocking the view from the front of the stall,” said the complaint.
The complaint said Craig then tapped his right foot several times and moved it closer to Karsnia’s stall and then moved it to where it touched Karsnia’s foot. Karsnia recognized that “as a signal often used by persons communicating a desire to engage in sexual conduct,” the complaint said.
Craig then passed his left hand under the stall divider into Karsnia’s stall with his palm up and guided it along the divider toward the front of the stall three times, the complaint said.
The officer then showed his police identification under the divider and pointed toward the exit “at which time the defendant exclaimed, ‘No!”’ the complaint said.
The police report says Craig handed the arresting officer a business card that identified him as a member of the Senate. “What do you think about that?” Craig said, according to the report.
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