Larry Craig

Republicans stuck with ethics probe after Sen. Craig calls their bluff

WASHINGTON — Larry who?

Now that scandal-tinged Idaho Sen. Larry Craig has reneged on a pledge to resign this fall, his fellow Republican senators act as though they hardly know him. They want voters to forget him, too.

But they privately acknowledge that an earlier strategy to drive Craig from office has backfired, sticking them with an open-ended ethics investigation likely to keep the issue before the public for months.

Senate Republicans demanded the Ethics Committee inquiry into his sex-sting conviction last summer in hopes of forcing Craig to resign. He essentially called their bluff this month when he reversed his decision to resign Sept. 30 unless a court let him drop his guilty plea.

Now Republicans are powerless to stop a process almost certain to do more political damage to the party in general than to a retiring senator.

“I think they were a little fanciful” in urging the Senate’s Select Committee on Ethics to take up the matter, said Stanley Brand, a Washington lawyer for Craig. He called the strong-arm strategy “ethical waterboarding,” referring to the controversial interrogation technique.

Some senators had pointedly warned Craig that any ethics committee hearings might be public, and probably televised.

While public hearings are possible, lawyers and Senate staffers familiar with the committee say closed sessions seem more likely. The last public hearings were held 17 years ago, in the “Keating Five” case. The “Keating Five” case was a congressional scandal involving the widespread failure of savings and loans institutions.

Current Ethics Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., unsuccessfully pressed for public hearings in 1995 into sexual harassment charges against Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore. But colleagues and analysts said Boxer and her fellow Democrats might proceed cautiously in the Craig matter.

Senate Democrats are wary of creating precedents involving misdemeanor charges that could ensnare their own party members someday. They also will want to avoid a public spectacle that some might interpret as gay-bashing.

“Don’t look for any open hearings or for any speedy resolution of this case,” said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Republicans would like it out of the news. And Democrats, who don’t mind at all having it in the news, must be careful not to press too hard and offend many of their supporters.”

Craig was arrested June 11 by an undercover police officer in a men’s room in the Minneapolis airport. He denied soliciting sex, but pleaded guilty weeks later to disorderly conduct, saying he wanted the matter to quietly go away.

After the arrest became public, Craig tried to withdraw his plea, but a judge disallowed it. Craig then said he would complete his third term, which ends in 15 months.

The secretive Ethics Committee, comprising three Democrats and three Republicans, may recommend discipline against a senator for “conduct or activity which does not directly relate to official duties, when such conduct unfavorably reflects on the institution as a whole.”

Despite that broad standard, Brand told the committee in September that it has never acted on allegations unrelated to a senator’s “official action.”

Boxer said through a spokeswoman Friday: “We are in the process of conducting a preliminary inquiry, and this stage is always closed to the public. If, at the end of the preliminary inquiry, the Ethics Committee decides to move into the adjudicatory phase, any hearings held would be public unless the committee votes to close them. But that is a decision that is made after we have completed our preliminary inquiry.”

The Ethics Committee traditionally moves slowly, with some cases taking years to resolve. The Craig matter seems no exception.

Spokesmen for the senator and the arresting police officer said this week that no one from the committee had approached them about possible testimony or information.