WASHINGTON — A judge in Minnesota has turned down U.S. Sen. Larry Craig’s effort to withdraw his Aug. 1 guilty plea, saying that his claim that he didn’t know what he was doing when he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct was “illogical.” However, Craig maintained his innocence Thursday and said he will continue to explore his legal options.
In his ruling, issued Thursday afternoon, Judge Charles Porter Jr. shot down the Idaho Republican’s main arguments that he made a mistake when he pleaded guilty to charges in connection with a men’s room sex sting, and that he pleaded guilty under pressure of a newspaper investigation into his background, and that his plea was not intelligently made.
Craig issued the following statement in reaction to Thursday's ruling allowing the guilty plea to stand:
"I am extremely disappointed with the ruling issued today. I am innocent of the charges against me. I continue to work with my legal team to explore my additional legal options.
"I will continue to serve Idaho in the United States Senate, and there are several reasons for that. 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.
"Over the course of my three terms in the Senate and five terms in the House, I have accumulated seniority and important committee assignments that are valuable to Idaho, not the least of which are my seats on the Appropriations Committee, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Veterans' Affairs Committee. A replacement would be highly unlikely to obtain these posts.
"In addition, I will continue my effort to clear my name in the Senate Ethics Committee - something that is not possible if I am not serving in the Senate.
"When my term has expired, I will retire and not seek reelection. I hope this provides the certainty Idaho needs and deserves."
Billy Martin, the lead attorney representing Craig also expressed disappointment in Thursday's ruling.
“We are, of course, disappointed with the ruling issued today," Martin said. "Sen. Larry Craig maintains that he is innocent and there is insufficient evidence to support a finding that he is guilty. Thus, we renew our arguments that it is manifestly unjust to deny Sen. Craig’s request to withdraw his guilty plea. Sen. Craig continues his steadfast denial that any inappropriate behavior took place at the airport. He is currently considering whether to appeal this decision. Throughout this trying time, Sen. Craig has remained a dedicated public servant and continues to serve the people of Idaho with honor and distinction, as he has done for the past 27 years.”
When the charges first surfaced, Craig, a Republican, said he would resign by Sept. 30. But then he decided to attempt to reopen his legal case, and said he would stay at least until he found out whether he could withdraw his plea to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct.
If Craig were to resign, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican, would appoint his successor. Otter said Wednesday his action would awaits Craig's decision.
"When Larry makes his decision, I'm ready to make mine," Otter had said.
Otter has chosen a replacement for Craig, should he resign, but hasn’t yet informed the person that he has chosen.
“He is ready to act should we receive a letter of resignation,” said Jon Hanian, Otter’s spokesman in Boise. “As of this hour we still have not received one. I do not believe the replacement candidate has been notified because until we receive a letter of resignation we do not have a vacancy to fill.”
Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo reaffirmed his support of his fellow senator. “Senator Craig has the right to pursue his legal options as does any citizen, and I support his effort. I look forward to serving with him as we continue to work on issues important to Idaho.”
Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson also supported Craig’s decision.
“Sen. Craig’s announcement gives the people of Idaho some certainty for the next 15 months," Simpson said. "I remain convinced this delegation will continue to effectively represent Idaho as we turn our focus to more pressing matters.”
Republican Rep. Bill Sali stood behind Craig. “Our prayers continue to be with Senator Craig and his family as they make decisions that will affect their future and Idaho's," Sali said in a statement. "The people of Idaho will benefit most if Idaho's delegation remains united in working to secure the greatest results possible for our state."
Sali also said he would help Craig carry out his agenda.
"I am committed to do everything I can to help make Senator Craig’s remaining months in office as successful as possible,” Sali said.
Former Democratic Congressman Richard Stallings, chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party said Craig’s decision to remain in office has two different implications for the state.
“This is bad news for Idaho because the embarrassment is going to be ongoing,” said Stallings, who served in the House with Craig in from 1985-1990. “It’s good news for Democrats because the governor will not be able to replace him with someone with a head start and it will throw the Republicans into a primary that will be divisive."
Craig has maintained his innocence and said his actions in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport bathroom June 11 were misconstrued by the police officer who arrested him.
The officer said Craig had looked into his bathroom stall, and tapped his foot and moved his hand under the divider in a way that suggested he was looking for a sexual partner.
Craig denied that in an interview with the officer after his arrest. But he pleaded guilty on Aug. 8. He later said he “panicked” in entering his plea, believing that it would keep the matter quiet. The Idaho Statesman had been holding back an article on rumors about his sexuality, and Craig said in court papers that he feared the arrest would trigger the story.
Porter rejected that as a good reason to withdraw the plea. Any pressure Craig was under “was entirely perceived by the defendant and was not a result of any action by the police, the prosecutor, or the court,” he said.
Minnesota law allows a plea to be withdrawn if a “manifest injustice” occurs, but leaves it to judges to define that. Porter ruled that none occurred in Craig’s case.
“It is not a manifest injustice to force the defendant to be bound by his plea bargain and the waivers and admissions which he made in conjunction with the execution of that bargain,” Porter wrote.
He also wrote that Craig hadn’t produced any “newly discovered evidence” that would clear him.
Roll Call reported Craig’s arrest and guilty plea on Aug. 27. Fellow Republican senators soon called on Craig to resign, and conservative groups, which had given him near-perfect approval ratings, abandoned him quickly.
Craig had been elected to Congress from Idaho in 1980 and was in his third term in the Senate.
Within days Craig said he would resign by Sept. 30. He then changed his mind, saying he would stay in office until the legal case was finished.
Prosecutor Christopher Renz had accused Craig of “politicking and game playing” with the legal system, and argued that Craig was urged to hire an attorney and had plenty of time to think about his plea.
Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said in a statement that the commission, which runs Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, was pleased with the decision.
“The ruling continues to hold Senator Craig accountable for his conduct,” Hogan said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Check back at IdahoStatesman.com for details as they become available.