As he prepares to leave Senate, Craig seeks to clear his name

WASHINGTON — As Larry Craig's career in the Senate comes to an end, the Idaho Republican has one final fight ahead of him: salvaging the reputation sullied by his June 11 arrest in an undercover sex sting in an airport men's room.

The three-term senator plans to exit the U.S. Senate Sept. 30, but on his way out, he's hired an image-maker and some prominent legal minds to clear his name in not only the court of public opinion, but also the actual courts.

In the public opinion realm, two of Craig's children went on "Good Morning America" to talk about how they believe their father, and how they consider him an honorable man who was "a victim of circumstance, in the wrong place at the wrong time."

He's also hired Judy Smith, a public relations expert who handled publicity for Monica Lewinsky and, more recently, for U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat now the subject of a corruption probe.

In the legal realm, Craig's lawyers are working to unravel his guilty plea to charges of disorderly conduct in connection with soliciting an undercover policeman at the Minneapolis airport. To overturn a plea agreement, Minnesota courts would want proof that Craig wasn't informed of some fundamental right, something that legal experts have said would be difficult to prove.

"What we're doing now is to square this in a way that allows Sen. Craig to leave with honor," said Stan Brand, the Washington lawyer hired to help fight any action by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Craig was not in Washington Tuesday, the first day back for Congress after its summer recess. He will return before month's end, said his spokesman, Dan Whiting, but it's unlikely to be this week. And Craig will have some sort of farewell in the Senate, Whiting said.

"He's definitely very active right now, he's out and about," Whiting said. "He's not crying in his bedroom."

One of Craig's first actions this week, since stepping down, is to hire an attorney to fight any Ethics Committee investigation that might be in progress. Last week, when news broke about Craig's arrest, GOP leaders in the Senate referred the matter to the committee.

Brand's previous clients include former California Rep. Tony Coehlo, former House Majority Whip Bill Gray of Pennsylvania and Illinois Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, all Democrats.

Brand's first order of business is to draft a letter asking the committee to drop its investigation, since Craig made the move to step down.

Craig's strategy for undoing his guilty plea is still in the early stages, Smith said. He has hired Washington defense attorney Billy Martin, whose most recent high-profile client was NFL quarterback Michael Vick.

The attorneys and public relations help are a major shift in strategy for the senator, who admitted he never spoke with a lawyer about his sex-related arrest, and never told his family, staff or fellow Republicans in the Senate.

However, the decision by two of Craig's children to appear on "Good Morning America" wasn't tied to advice Craig received from Smith. Shae Howell and Michael Craig made the decision on their own, seduced in part by personal e-mails from Diane Sawyer and coffee and pastries sent to their father's staff.

But they also wanted to present their own version of their father, Whiting said. On the air, they told Sawyer that they had asked their father tough questions before they offered to stand with him. They said they believed his version of events and his assertion that he is not gay. And both said they thought their father had been abandoned by his own political party.

"We just wanted to hear from our dad what happened," Michael Craig said on television. "We've known him our whole life. He has been so trustworthy to us, so honest to us, that we believe him."

Whiting said that Craig is concerned about his replacement but hasn't been actively involved in that decision. But since his continued presence was considered a distraction, Whiting said the senator hopes Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter appoints someone ambitious who will run in 2008 and not act merely as a placeholder.