WASHINGTON — Idaho Sen. Larry Craig moved to undo his guilty plea to a sex-related charge by filing a motion Monday saying that he was in a "state of fear" and worried about "unnecessary publicity" this summer when he signed the plea.
The motion, filed in court Monday in Hennepin County, Minn., seeks to withdraw the Idaho senator's plea to disorderly conduct, a charge that arose from accusations he tried to arrange for sex with an undercover police officer in the bathroom of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
In the document, Craig maintained his innocence and said his plea should be withdrawn because when he signed it Aug. 1 "it was not knowingly and understandingly made."
Rather than seeking advice from a lawyer who would "assist him in publicly fighting these charges," Craig said in Monday's court motion that "panic drove him to accept a guilty plea, the terms of which offered him what he thought was a private, expeditious resolution of this matter."
"I made the decision on that date to seek a guilty plea to whatever charge would be lodged against me," Craig said in an affidavit filed with the motion.
A spokesman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport said that the airport's prosecutors intend to fight Craig's attempts to withdraw his plea. They considered it a final judgment when Craig pleaded guilty and paid a $575 fine, said airport spokesman Patrick Hogan.
"There was an arrest, several weeks later there was a plea, and a fine was paid," Hogan said. "We will object to the motion filed by the senator and vigorously defend the existing plea."
So far, no date has been set for a hearing, and it's not clear when Craig would appear in court. Hogan said the airport intends to file a response to Craig's motion within a week.
Craig's lead attorney, Washington criminal lawyer Billy Martin, said that the focus of his efforts to undo Craig's plea will be to prove that what the senator admitted to when he was interrogated by airport police didn't constitute a crime.
"Sen. Craig admits to going to the bathroom, he admits to moving his foot," Martin said on NBC's "Today Show." "He admits to reaching his hand down. That's all. That is not a crime. As a matter of law, the conduct that even he admits to does not constitute a crime."
In his motion, Craig places heavy blame for his decision on the Idaho Statesman's five-month investigation into longstanding rumors that the senator engaged in gay sex. The investigation, which was not published until news broke of Craig's arrest, found, among other things, that one man reported having oral sex with Craig in Washington's Union Station.
"Despite Senator Craig's denial of any inappropriate behavior, he was panicked that such allegations would be made public and that they would provide the Idaho Statesman with an excuse" to publish the findings of its investigation, according to his motion.
"While in this state of intense anxiety, Senator Craig felt compelled to grasp the lifeline offered to him by the police officer; namely, that if he were to submit to an interview and plead guilty, then none of the officer's allegations would be made public."
Statesman editor and vice president Vicki Gowler defended the Statesman's investigation.
"The Statesman has taken great care in investigating these serious allegations about Sen. Craig," Gowler said.
"From the start, it was important to us to do a thorough and responsible investigation, outside of deadline pressures. We did that," Gowler said. "Because of the allegations made last fall, a necessary part of a thorough investigation did include trying to determine whether the senator was regularly cruising restrooms for anonymous sex. The length of the investigation was due in large part to difficulties we encountered getting information from the senator."
Craig has not been in Washington since news broke of his arrest, and he is not expected back this week.
Craig has said he would resign Sept. 30, but he has also acknowledged that if he is able to successfully withdraw his guilty plea, he will keep open a small window to stay in office through the remainder of his term.
It will be a difficult deadline to meet. Even his lawyer acknowledged on the "Today Show" that the main goal is to clear Craig's name, not to restore him to office.
"This will take as long as it takes, we're going to fight this all the way through," Martin said.
And while there have been successful efforts to withdraw guilty pleas, it's often under far different circumstances, said Stephen Simon, a University of Minnesota law professor. Most of the case law on the subject is for people who face tough sentencing after committing their third or fourth crime. They're trying to undo previous guilty pleas so that those earlier crimes don't count against them when they face sentencing for additional crimes.
"It is fairly uncommon for people to do that, but it does happen, because the vast majority of criminal cases are resolved through a plea bargain," Simon said.