WASHINGTON - Sen. Larry Craig's behavior before and after his arrest in a gay-sex sting in an airport men's room was "improper conduct" reflecting poorly on the U.S. Senate, a unanimous Senate Ethics Committee charged Wednesday in a rare letter of public admonishment.
Craig tried to "evade legal consequences" for his guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge by trying to keep the arrest secret and attempting to withdraw his plea only after it became public, the bipartisan committee said. That is "a course that a U.S. senator should not take," the six members of the committee wrote.
The senators also said Craig broke a Senate rule by failing to seek the committee's permission before spending more than $200,000 in leftover campaign money to try to overturn his plea and clear his name.
The scolding was a rare public chastisement by the committee's three Republicans and three Democrats. It carries no punishment beyond additional embarrassment for Craig.
Craig said he disagreed strongly with the letter. "I will continue to serve the people of Idaho," he said.
The letter represents another setback for the Idaho Republican. He saw the ethics process as one of two avenues available to him to clear his name.
Craig was arrested June 11 by an undercover officer at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. The officer, who was investigating complaints about public sex acts in men's rooms, said Craig signaled interest in sex by running his hand under an adjoining restroom stall and tapping his toes.
When news of the arrest and guilty plea broke in late August, Craig at first said he would resign. He later changed his mind and decided to finish his remaining year in office while he battled the ethics investigation and pursued his appeal in Minnesota courts.
The ethics complaint was filed by Craig's fellow Senate Republicans, who stripped him of his committee leadership posts pending the investigation's outcome. It is unlikely that Senate leaders will reinstate him to his leadership positions, since they have been taken over by other GOP senators. The Senate minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had no comment Wednesday.
A separate watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also filed a complaint about Craig with the ethics committee. Executive Director Melanie Sloan criticized the committee Wednesday for going soft on Craig.
"Of course Larry Craig acted improperly - no one in America needed the Senate Ethics Committee to tell us that," Sloan said. "Typically, the Ethics Committee did no more than tap him on the wrist."
Committee members would not comment Wednesday night. A spokeswoman for Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairwoman, said that "the letter speaks for itself."
The letter made little mention of Craig's behavior in the men's room, other than to say that the committee "accepts as proven" his guilty plea.
Instead, the letter focused on three things:
* HIS REQUEST FOR "FAVORABLE TREATMENT." The letter said Craig showed his Senate business card to the arresting officer and asked him "What do you think about that?"
"Under the circumstances present at that time, you knew or should have known that a reasonable person in the position of the arresting officer could view your action and statement as an improper attempt by you to use your position and status as a United States Senator to receive special and favorable treatment," the committee wrote.
* HIS RENEGING ON HIS PLEA. The letter criticized Craig's efforts to withdraw his guilty plea, saying they conflict with his obligation to uphold the law and are beneath the stature of a U.S. senator. The committee echoed the words of a Minnesota judge who said Craig's claim that he didn't know what he was doing when he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct was "illogical."
"Your claims to the court, through counsel, to the effect that your guilty plea resulted from improper pressure or coercion, or that you did not, as a legal matter, know what you were doing when you pled guilty, do not appear credible," the panel wrote.
* HIS USE OF CAMPAIGN MONEY. Finally, the ethics committee said Craig is not entitled to spend his remaining campaign money on lawyers without the committee's permission.
Since his arrest, Craig has spent $201,420 on lawyers, according to his two most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission. Most of that money has gone toward appealing his guilty plea, which is being handled by Washington, D.C., lawyer Billy Martin.
More than $53,000 has gone to Stan Brand, another Washington lawyer hired to handle the ethics case. Brand did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Senators must get permission first from the Ethics Committee, and Craig did not, the letter said. The committee said it "will consider any further use of your campaign funds for legal expenses without the committee's approval to be conduct demonstrating your continuing disregard of ethics requirements."
Typically, the Federal Election Commission allows lawmakers to use campaign funds to defend themselves against charges or investigations arising from their roles as an officeholder. The senators argued that "some portion" of his legal and public-relations defense is a personal expense that has nothing to do with his official duties.
The letter is a rare glimpse inside the committee's investigative process. The committee seldom meets in public and until recently wasn't required to account for its findings.
The last public Senate Ethics committee hearings were the "Keating Five" proceedings in the early 1990s, when the committee investigated five senators for their close ties to Charles Keating, the Arizona-based owner of a failed savings and loan bailed out by U.S. taxpayers. Three senators ultimately resigned.
Idaho's congressional delegation remained mum on the ethics report. Officials with Rep. Bill Sali and Sen. Mike Crapo declined comment, and a spokeswoman for Rep. Mike Simpson did not immediately return a phone call Wednesday night.
Democrat Larry LaRocco, who is running to succeed Craig, said the report will increase calls for Craig's resignation.
"In the court of public opinion, I think this is going to have quite a bit of weight," the former congressman said. "I don't think it's anything to be taken lightly."
Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, a candidate for the Republican nomination for Craig's seat, could not be reached for comment.
Erika Bolstad (202) 383-6104. Washington correspondent Margaret Talev and Idaho Statesman reporter Heath Druzin contributed to this report.