WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Larry Craig moved to undo his guilty plea to a sex-related charge by telling a court Monday that he was in a "state of fear" and worried about "unnecessary publicity" this summer when he signed it.
In a motion filed in Hennepin County, Minn., Craig sought to withdraw his plea to disorderly conduct, a charge that rose from accusations he tried to have sex with an undercover police officer in the restroom of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
In the document, Craig maintained his innocence and said his plea should be withdrawn because when he signed it Aug. 1 "it was not knowingly and understandingly made."
Craig blamed his fear on the Idaho Statesman's five-month investigation into longstanding rumors that the senator engaged in gay sex. The newspaper contacted scores of Craig's friends, demanded Craig's FBI file and patrolled bars and restrooms with Craig's picture, the motion said.
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The investigation, which was not published until news of Craig's arrest broke two weeks ago, found among other things that one man reported having oral sex with Craig in Washington's Union Station.
A spokesman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport said the airport's prosecutors will oppose Craig's motion. Prosecutors considered it a final judgment when Craig pleaded guilty and paid a $575 fine, spokesman Patrick Hogan said.
"There was an arrest, several weeks later there was a plea, and a fine was paid," Hogan said. "We will object to the motion filed by the senator and vigorously defend the existing plea."
Hogan said prosecutors will file a response to Craig's motion within a week. No date has yet been set for a hearing.
In the motion, a lawyer for Craig wrote that "panic drove him to accept a guilty plea, the terms of which offered him what he thought was a private, expeditious resolution of this matter." He chose that rather than seeking advice from a lawyer who would "assist him in publicly fighting these charges," the motion said.
"Despite Senator Craig's denial of any inappropriate behavior, he was panicked that such allegations would be made public and that they would provide the Idaho Statesman with an excuse" to publish the findings of its investigation, according to his motion.
"While in this state of intense anxiety, Senator Craig felt compelled to grasp the lifeline offered to him by the police officer; namely, that if he were to submit to an interview and plead guilty, then none of the officer's allegations would be made public."
The arresting officer, Sgt. Dave Karsnia, told Craig during his interrogation, "I don't call media." The arrest June 11 did not become public until a Capitol Hill newspaper reported it 2› months later on Aug. 27. The Statesman published its investigation the next day.
Statesman Editor and Vice President Vicki Gowler defended the investigation.
"The Statesman has taken great care in investigating these serious allegations about Senator Craig," Gowler said.
"From the start, it was important to us to do a thorough and responsible investigation, outside of deadline pressures. We did that. Because of the allegations made last fall, a necessary part of a thorough investigation did include trying to determine whether the senator was regularly cruising restrooms for anonymous sex. The length of the investigation was due in large part to difficulties we encountered getting information from the senator."
Craig's lead attorney, Washington, D.C., criminal lawyer Billy Martin, said what Craig did was not a crime.
"Senator Craig admits to going to the bathroom. He admits to moving his foot," Martin said on NBC's Today Show. "He admits to reaching his hand down. That's all. That is not a crime."
Craig has not been in Washington since the arrest became public and is not expected this week, a short but pivotal congressional work week dominated by discussions of progress in Iraq.
Craig has said he would resign Sept. 30 but has also said that if he is able to successfully withdraw his guilty plea first, he might finish his term, which runs through 2008. Sept. 30 will be a difficult deadline to meet. Even Martin said the main goal is to clear Craig's name, not to restore him to office.
"This will take as long as it takes," he said. "We're going to fight this all the way through."
Some people succeed in withdrawing guilty pleas, but usually under far different circumstances, said Stephen Simon, a University of Minnesota law professor. People who face tough sentences after committing their third or fourth crimes sometimes try to undo previous guilty pleas so those earlier crimes don't count against them in sentencing, he said.
Craig's motion likely would succeed only if his lawyers focus on the fact that there's no evidence the senator signed anything acknowledging he was giving up representation by a lawyer, he said.
It's possible Craig will use campaign contributions to pay his legal bills. Federal Elections Commission rules allow legislators to use campaign contributions if the legal bills relate to their jobs. As of June 30, Craig had about $549,125, plus $29,907 in his separate political action committee, Alliance for the West.
Erika Bolstad: (202) 383-6104