Craig again fails to get guilty plea tossed

The senator says he may appeal the decision in the men's room sex sting to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

ebolstad@mcclatchydc.com dhanners@pioneerpress.comDecember 10, 2008 

Rebuffed twice, Sen. Larry Craig vows to fight on.

The Idaho Republican has yet to persuade Minnesota courts to let him undo his guilty plea in that infamous men's room sex sting last year at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

"I maintain my innocence, and currently my attorneys and I are reviewing the decision and looking into the possibility of appealing," Craig said in a statement Tuesday after the Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected his latest effort. He added that he remains "steadfast" in his belief that "nothing criminal or improper occurred at the Minneapolis airport."

Craig and his lawyers have 30 days to appeal the ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The appeals court scuttled Craig's argument that the plea wasn't valid because he mailed it in rather than appearing in court in person.

Craig's undoing began June 11, 2007, when he was on a layover between flights and used the men's room. Alerted to reports of men soliciting gay sex in the restrooms, airport police had begun a sting operation.

Sgt. Dave Karsnia was working undercover in a stall when Craig entered the restroom. Karsnia claimed that Craig stood and, for two minutes, peered into the stall he was in. When an adjacent stall became vacant, Craig walked in, sat down and began tapping his feet and waving his palm under the stall divider, movements the officer said were generally accepted signals soliciting gay sex.

Craig was charged with "interference with privacy," a gross misdemeanor, and a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. In proceedings conducted by phone and by mail, the state dropped the privacy charge and Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and paid $575 in fines and surcharges.

Craig never consulted a lawyer. He hoped the arrest would never come to light. After the arrest became public in August of 2007, Craig said he would resign, but later changed his mind and began trying to retract his plea.

Craig said he wasn't gay. He said he had been under stress because the Idaho Statesman had interviewed him and others for a possible article about his sex life. He said that because of the stress, he "overreacted and made a poor decision" by pleading guilty. The Statesman later published statements from four named men who claimed they had homosexual encounters with the senator.

A lower court judge rejected Craig's arguments, so he appealed. In front of the appellate court this fall, Craig's lawyers argued that mailed-in guilty pleas don't contain sufficient evidence to show a crime was committed. But the court said a guilty plea is "not invalid merely because it is entered in writing."

To get a guilty plea thrown out, a defendant must prove there would be a "manifest injustice" in letting it stand. But Chief Judge Edward Toussaint Jr. said Craig's plea included all things needed to make it valid - it was accurate, voluntary and intelligent.

The court also rejected Craig's claim that the state's disorderly conduct statute is too broad and that his behavior in the restroom was protected "free speech." Not so, the court said.

Craig's conduct was "invasive of the privacy of another and may properly be prohibited as disorderly conduct," the court found. "A person using a restroom stall is such a 'captive' audience with substantial privacy interests that would be intolerably invaded even by communications less potentially offensive than sexual solicitations."

The court also rejected Craig's argument that there was no evidence in the record reviewed by the judge who accepted the guilty plea that Craig was in the restroom for anything other than a legitimate reason.

Earlier this year, the Senate Ethics Committee chastised Craig with a letter of public admonishment and said his "improper conduct" reflected poorly on the U.S. Senate.

The committee faulted Craig for not getting permission to use leftover campaign money to pay his legal fees. He later set up a legal defense fund; an October filing showed it had raised $4,645.

Craig wasn't granting interviews Tuesday, but his statement said: "I would like to thank all of those who have continued to support me and my family throughout this difficult time."

Erika Bolstad: (202) 383-6104. David Hanners is a reporter for the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn.

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