Craig says he'll stay in office 'for now'

Idaho StatesmanSeptember 26, 2007 

Sen. Larry Craig says he will remain in office — for now. Fellow members of the Idaho congressional delegation say they support his decision not to quit by this weekend, but Republican leaders in Washington and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter greeted the news with silence.

Craig’s said Wednesday that he would stay in office, presumably beyond the Sunday deadline he had set for his resignation, after a Minnesota judge heard testimony in Craig's request to withdraw his guilty plea in a men's room sex sting. The judge said he wouldn't rule before the end of next week.

“Today was a major step in the legal effort to clear my name,” Craig said in a statement. “The court has not issued a ruling on my motion to withdraw my guilty plea. For now, I will continue my work in the United States Senate for Idaho.”

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo said he backs Craig's decision. So did Idaho's two House members, Mike Simpson and Bill Sali. All are Republicans.

But Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to answer any questions about Craig. So did the Republican National Committee. Otter, who has lined up a successor to appoint but hasn't said who, did not return phone calls.

Idaho Republican Party Chairman Kirk Sullivan said there was little he could say because the Craig matter is pending in court.

“I understand Senator Craig's desire to clear his good name, and I join him in hoping that the judge will issue a decision as quickly as possible,” Sullivan said.

Judge Charles Porter held a 30-minute hearing. Porter disagreed pointedly with Craig’s Washington D.C. attorney, William Martin, over Martin's description of disorderly conduct as it applied to Craig's case.

Craig was arrested in a Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport bathroom in June. The complaint against Craig alleged, among other things, that the lawmaker slid his foot into an adjoining stall — touching an undercover policeman’s shoe — and repeatedly ran his hand under the stall partition. Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in August.

Martin first acknowledged that getting a guilty plea withdrawn was “next to impossible.” He told Porter that he didn’t dispute the facts, but he didn’t believe any of them constituted a crime.

Porter interjected comments during Martin’s argument several times, once to correct him on a case law citation and again when Martin claimed that the court received only the plea agreement, with no underlying facts. Porter said he received the facts.

When Martin argued Craig’s actions couldn’t be considered disorderly conduct because “you should have either touching, or words, or a combination of the two,” Porter disagreed.

“If I were to come storming around the bench and start shaking my fist at you…that’s the sort of thing that would case you to become alarmed,” he said.

“It absolutely would,” Martin replied.

“Well, that’s disorderly conduct,” Porter said.

The judge drew laughs from courtroom spectators when, in discussing the airport bathroom stalls, he said, “You would have to push the public out of the way who are taking pictures of the stall out there.”

The other main argument was made by Craig’s Minneapolis attorney, Thomas Kelly, who argued that the mail-in petition used by Craig was “defective” because it lacked a judge’s signature.

Prosecutor Christopher Renz, representing the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said Craig’s defense team was trying to make each of Craig’s individual actions seem “nebulous and vague,” but that when all of them were considered together, they represented a “series of invasions” into the adjacent bathroom stall.

At the end of the brief hearing, Porter told attorneys that he wouldn’t have a decision on the motion “before the end of next week.”

The courtroom was filled to capacity with about three dozen reporters, members of the public, and a smattering of attorneys.

Minneapolis criminal defense lawyer Jonathan Burris watched the courtroom proceedings with interest, as he has clients who have been similarly charged in the airport sex sting operation. He said Porter’s dialogue with Martin was not unusual for the judge. But Burris said Martin “didn’t seem very familiar with the specifics.”

On Sept. 1, Craig said he intended to resign at the end of month. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has been searching for a replacement since. Otter had no comment Wednesday.

The arrest came to light in late August when a Capitol Hill newspaper reported it.

Airport police Sgt. Dave Karsnia said he went into a stall shortly after noon June 11 and closed the door. Minutes later, the officer said he saw Craig peering 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 luggage 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," the complaint said.

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. Karsnia then showed his police identification to Craig, motioned him to leave the stall and arrested him.

Craig has said he kept the arrest and plea quiet because the Idaho Statesman was investigating longstanding rumors that he had engaged in gay sex. The newspaper reported its findings Aug. 28 only after news of the arrest broke. The Statesman reported, among other things, that a man with close ties to Republican officials reported having oral sex with Craig at Washington's Union Station.

Craig denies that he is gay, denies engaging in gay sex and has said the police officer misinterpreted what happened in the men’s room.

Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who led behind-the-scenes efforts to persuade Craig to resign, refused to answer any questions about Craig on Wednesday. As he strode from a press conference to a Senate elevator before Craig released his statement, McConnell was asked whether Craig had spoken to him about his decision to stay in the Senate. McConnell was silent as the elevator doors closed.

Meanwhile, in suburban Minneapolis, cameras and cops clustered outside the courthouse during the afternoon, as well as three placard-carrying protesters. “We’re Craig supporters from Minnesota who think the whole thing is really silly,” said Anthony Wright. One of the placards read: “Pee Don’t Plea.”

Whether or not Craig’s motion is overturned, the case has inspired some changes: Plans are under way to lower the partitions between stalls in the airport’s bathroom to the floor to prevent future toe touching or hand-swiping.

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Deborah Caulfield Rybak is an Idaho Statesman correspondent. Erika Bolstad is a reporter for the Statesman at McClatchy Newspapers in Washington, D.C. The Associated Press also contributed to this report. contributed.

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