Image: Larry Craig
Jackie Johnston  /  AP
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, during a press conference in this file photo.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/15/2007 11:05:26 AM ET 2007-10-15T15:05:26

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, is under scrutiny from the Senate Ethics Committee due to his guilty plea after he was arrested on June 11 in a Minneapolis airport men's room.

Sgt. Dave Karsnia, the undercover officer who arrested Craig, said the senator had signaled by hand and foot gestures that he wanted to have sex with him. The restroom was known as a homosexual haunt.

Here's a simple Q & A guide to the committee's inquiry.

What is the job of the Senate Ethics Committee?
To investigate allegations of law breaking, violations of the Senate Code of Official Conduct, and violations of the Senate’s rules by senators or staff members.

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It also investigates improper conduct which may reflect badly upon the Senate.

Video: Craig stays in Senate

Once it has investigated, it can recommend disciplinary action.

What is the basis in the Constitution for the Ethics Committee’s investigation of Craig?
Article I of the Constitution says each house of Congress may “punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.”

Does a senator need to have violated a specific law or Senate rule in order for him or her to be scrutinized by the Ethics Committee?
No, the Senate has voted to discipline members for unethical or improper actions, even if they didn’t violate any particular law or Senate rule.

The Senate Ethics Manual says the committee can investigate a senator's conduct when it is “so notorious or reprehensible that it could discredit the institution as a whole, not just the individual.”

How many senators serve on the Ethics Committee?

Six, three from each party. The current chairwoman of the panel is Sen. Barbara Boxer, D- Calif.

Image: Barabara Boxer
Karen Bleier  /  AFP/Getty Images
As chairwoman of the Ethics Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is at the helm of the probe of her colleague Sen. Larry Craig.

Is there a conflict of interest here, since three members belong to Craig's political party and the other three are from the opposing party? How can this be a neutral fact-finding body?
The Constitution makes the Senate mostly a self-policing institution, so there's no alternative to senators sitting in judgement of one of their own colleagues.

The Senate voted last year to reject the idea of an independent director of public integrity who would have had a role in policing behavior.

In previous Ethics Committee actions, such as the 1982 vote to recommend expulsion of Sen. Harrison Williams, D-N.J., who had been convicted of conspiracy and bribery in the “Abscam” FBI sting operation, the Senate was controlled by the Republicans and Williams was a Democrat. Williams resigned.

In other cases, a Senate controlled by one party has voted to censure a senator of that same party.

In Craig's case, the ranking Republican on the Ethics Committee is Sen. John Cornyn, R- Texas, who is also a member of the his party's leadership as Vice Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

Cornyn has not commented on Craig's case.

It is in the Republicans' 2008 electoral interest to see Craig promptly gone from the Senate.

Is there a deadline for the committee to finish its work?
Craig's term expires on Jan. 3, 2009, so the case will be moot as of that date.

In what phase is the Ethics Committee now in the Craig case?
It is conducting a preliminary inquiry, which is always conducted behind closed doors. In this phase it may be gathering evidence, taking testimony, etc.

After the committee launches a preliminary inquiry, what next?
If the committee finds “substantial credible evidence” of misconduct, it may, by a vote of four of its members, start an ‘‘adjudicatory review’’ of the case.

It must notify the senator in question of its decision to conduct the review, stating the nature of the possible violation and a description of the evidence.

What rights does the senator accused of wrongdoing have during this adjudicatory review?
The committee must give him the opportunity for a hearing, which may be public or private at the Committee’s discretion, before the committee recommends disciplinary action to the Senate. He has the right to cross-examine witnesses, and may call witnesses in his own behalf.

Can the Ethics Committee subpoena evidence?
Yes.

In 1994, when Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., was under investigation for making unwanted sexual advances on several women, he urged federal district Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson to limit the scope of the subpoena the committee had issued to him.

Image: Sen. Bob Packwood, R-OR
Richard Ellis  /  AFP/Getty Images
1994 file photo of then Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, listening during a committee meeting on Capitol Hill.
But Jackson ruled that Packwood had no constitutional right to refuse to turn over evidence which the panel had subpoenaed.

A federal judge, Jackson wrote, “has no authority to restrict the scope of the Ethics Committee’s investigation.” Jackson said the Ethics Committee is the equivalent of a grand jury and acts “in furtherance of an express constitutional grant of authority to Congress to keep its own house in order.”

So far, what has been the defense mounted by Craig's attorney, Stan Brand?
Brand told Hardball's Chris Matthews last week that Senate staffers had threatened Craig with embarrassing Ethics Committee hearings.

But, said Brand, "the facts are known in this case. We have the (audio) tape (of Karsnia's booking of Craig). What the tape shows is innocent conduct. What the tape shows is a man being threatened and cajoled into pleading by an over-reaching police officer."

Brand added that a misdemeanor guilty plea is the kind of conduct "that historically has never been subject to discipline" by the Senate.

Will the committee's hearings on Craig be open to the public?
Maybe, maybe not. The committee or the full Senate can vote to keep the hearings behind closed doors.

During the Packwood investigation, Boxer — at that time not a member of the Ethics Committee — argued that the committee ought to have public hearings, but the Senate voted to reject her proposal.

Later, on the day Packwood told the Senate he'd resign, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said there ought to have been public hearings.

“I believe the people who came forward with complaints were entitled to be heard, and I think Senator Packwood was entitled to have a defense,” Specter said.

Before he quit, Packwood complained that, “The committee has been the judge, jury and prosecution. This process makes the Inquisition look like a study in fairness."

What role did Craig play in the Packwood case?
Craig served on the Ethics Committee in 1995 and was one of those to vote to recommend Packwood's expulsion.

The Los Angeles Times reported that on Sept. 7, 1995, on the Senate floor after Packwood announced his intention to resign, he and Craig “shook hands and hugged one another. Then Craig began sobbing and quickly strode into the GOP cloakroom, his hands covering his face.”

What punishment could the Senate impose on Craig?
It could reprimand, denounce, censure or expel him.

If the Senate censured or expelled Craig, would he keep his congressional pension?
Yes, he would. Censure or expulsion are not in themselves actions that strip a senator of his pension.

If however, a senator were convicted of certain felonies, such as accepting bribes — which is not the case in Craig's misdemeanor plea — he would lose his pension, under a bill signed into law by President Bush last month.

Who was the last senator to be expelled?
Sen. Jesse Bright, D-Ind., was expelled in 1862 for supporting the Confederacy.

Who was the last senator to resign in the face of likely expulsion?
Packwood quit in 1995 after the Ethics Committee voted unanimously to recommend his expulsion for “repeatedly committing sexual misconduct" by forcing his attentions on numerous women, including some of his employees.

The panel also found that Packwood had tried to obstruct the Committee’s inquiry by altering evidence which the committee had subpoenaed.

What other types of charges has the Senate considered in past expulsion cases?
In 1907, the Senate considered a motion to expel Sen. Reed Smoot, R-Utah, on the charge of Mormonism.

There was no Ethics Committee in 1907, but the Committee on Privileges and Elections found that Smoot was not entitled to his seat because he was a leader of a religion that advocated polygamy and a union of church and state.

By a vote of 43 to 27, the Senate voted to not expel Smoot, because he met the constitutional requirements for serving as a senator.

In 1917, the Senate voted to not expel Sen. Robert La Follette, R-Wisc., who was accused of disloyalty after he made a speech opposing U.S. entry into World War I.

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