Craig says he'll stay until end of term, despite judge's ruling

Senator Larry Craig (R-ID)
Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) Handout/MCT

WASHINGTON — Sen. Larry Craig said Thursday that he had no intention of leaving the Senate until the end of his term, despite a setback in his effort to clear his name of a sex-related guilty plea.

Craig will now face the full glare of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation and the ire of Republican Senate leaders, who say they feel as though he's gone back on his promise to step down after news broke of his arrest on charges that he solicited sex from an uncover police officer in the men's room of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

"He gave us his word that he would resign," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who's in charge of the GOP's 2008 Senate election fundraising. "I'm calling on Senator Craig to keep his word. If he loves his party, and he loves the Senate, the honorable thing to do is to resign."

Craig said in a statement that he was disappointed in Thursday's court ruling upholding his guilty plea. But he maintained his innocence and said he'll remain in the Senate until he finishes his term in January 2009.

Craig said he intends to keep fighting to clear his name in the courts, and he added that he wants to use the Senate Ethics Committee as a forum to clear his name — something he can't do if he leaves the Senate.

"I will continue to serve Idaho in the United States Senate, and there are several reasons for that," Craig said in his statement. "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."

On Thursday, a Minnesota judge turned down Craig's effort to withdraw his Aug. 1 guilty plea, saying that Craig's claim that he didn't know what he was doing when he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct was "illogical."

Craig's legal team, led by high-profile Washington-based criminal attorney Billy Martin, had no comment Thursday. Last week, Martin said Craig has "the right to pursue any and all legal remedies available as he continues the process of trying to clear his good name."

Some of Craig's colleagues, such as fellow Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, have urged him to fight the case in court.

"Senator Craig has the right to pursue his legal options as does any citizen, and I support his effort," Crapo said. "I look forward to serving with him as we continue to work on issues important to Idaho."

But Craig's decision to stay in the Senate means an Ethics Committee investigation. It's unclear what the next move will be for the six-member committee, made up of three Republicans and three Democrats. At least four members must vote to pursue an investigation.

Previously, the committee indicated that it had jurisdiction — and the intent — to pursue an inquiry. In a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who asked for the ethics investigation, the committee's chairwoman and vice chairman said they have the authority to look into "allegations of improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate."

The letter, signed by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, and vice chairman Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, goes on to say that typically the committee stops investigating members when they leave the Senate, but "pending Senator Craig's resignation, the committee will continue to review this matter."

Boxer in the early 1990s led the Democratic charge for public Ethics Committee hearings of the sexual harassment charges against Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon. A spokeswoman for her office wouldn't comment on whether she would follow suit in Craig's case.

Committee meetings are rarely public, although the panel does occasionally issue public letters out of its private deliberations. In 2002, the ethics panel reviewed the findings of a closed Department of Justice investigation into whether Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., accepted improper gifts from a donor.

The committee issued a public "letter of admonishment" to Torricelli, who then abandoned a re-election bid.

The last public Senate Ethics Committee hearings were the "Keating Five" proceedings in 1991, when the committee investigated five senators for their close ties to Charles Keating, the Arizona-based owner of a failed savings and loan bailed out by U.S. taxpayers. Three senators ultimately resigned.

McConnell had no comment Thursday, and a spokesman referred reporters to the Kentucky senator's previous statement on Craig. In early September, McConnell said he thought Craig made the right move by announcing his decision to step down on Sept. 30.

Another 16 months of attention on Craig's legal and ethical problems won't be welcome to most Senate Republicans, who already face an uphill fundraising battle in their 2008 re-election efforts.

Craig's prospects of fighting his case in court are particularly challenging, based on the decision issued Thursday by Judge Charles Porter Jr., the Minnesota judge who heard Craig's appeal last week. Porter shot down Craig's main argument that he made a mistake when he pleaded guilty to charges in connection with a men's room sex sting.

Craig, who was arrested June 11, had six weeks to make a decision that he would plead guilty to the charges, the judge wrote.

"The defendant argues he pled in haste to prevent the allegation in this case from being publicized, thus doing damage to his political reputation," Porter wrote. "This pressure was entirely perceived by the defendant and was not a result of any action by the police, the prosecutor, or the court."

But the political consequences have nothing to do with the legal validity of his guilty plea, Porter wrote. He also scolded Craig for his argument that his plea was "not intelligently made."

"The defendant, a career politician with a college education, is of, at least, above-average intelligence. He knew what he was saying, reading, and signing," Porter wrote.

The judge was also critical of Craig's claim that he was intimidated by the police officer who arrested him, Sgt. Dave Karsnia. Craig had enough self-possession to show Karsnia his business card identifying him as a U.S. senator, Porter pointed out.

"The defendant may have felt intimidated by the situation, but he also acted with a degree of confidence when ... he identified himself as a United States senator and said, 'What do you think about that?'"

A spokesman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport said airport officials were pleased with Porter's decision to uphold Craig's guilty plea.