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Idaho senator will delay resignation until judge rules

September 27, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

EDINA, MINN — . -- Trying to salvage his political career, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) said Wednesday he would not resign this weekend as previously announced, as a district court judge weighs his request to withdraw his guilty plea in connection with an undercover gay sex sting operation.

In a hearing in Hennepin County District Court earlier in the afternoon, Judge Charles A. Porter Jr. spent 45 minutes hearing arguments from Craig's attorneys and the Metropolitan Airports Commission's prosecutors before announcing that he would not rule before the end of next week.

That is after Craig's self-imposed Sept. 30 deadline for leaving the Senate if his name was not cleared.

Craig, who did not attend the hearing, issued a statement in Washington. "Today was a major step in the legal effort to clear my name," he said. "For now, I will continue my work in the United States Senate for Idaho."

On Aug. 8, Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in connection with a June incident in a men's restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The undercover officer in the case said Craig used signals, including tapping his foot and repeatedly sliding his hand under the restroom stall divider, to show that he was seeking sex.

Craig, who has denied doing anything wrong, filed his guilty plea to the misdemeanor charge by mail. He was ordered to pay $575 in fines and fees and received one year's probation.

But news of the arrest spread, and the married senator, who has denied he is gay, said he didn't consult with an attorney and felt pressured to accept the plea.

Defense attorney Billy Martin said at Wednesday's hearing that Craig's actions inside the restroom stall did not constitute a crime and did not show intent to commit one.

The state's disorderly conduct statute aims to "catch behaviors that make people uneasy or mad," the judge said. Craig "doesn't have to intend to do the conduct. He only has to do it."

Christopher Renz, a Metropolitan Airports Commission prosecutor, argued that Craig's motion to withdraw his plea was a case of political calculation. In court documents filed earlier this month, Renz said that he had talked with Craig repeatedly after the arrest, and at one point had suggested he consult with an attorney. "He had more than eight weeks, between the time of his arrest and the August 8th arraignment, to weigh his decision," Renz said. "He made a calculated decision."

The case has become an object of curiosity in the Twin Cities area. At the airport, the infamous bathroom has attracted picture-taking tourists.

The few protesters that showed up at the court's Southdale location poked fun at Craig, though some supported his fight. Jason Gabbert hoisted a white toilet from his car and placed it a few yards from the courthouse's entrance. Sitting down on the commode, he held up a sign: "Guilty? Where's the evidence?"

"I don't know what he was doing in there," said Gabbert, who lives in Apple Valley, Minn. "Either way, it doesn't seem to me that he committed a crime."

Craig's attorneys are arguing that Minnesota law allows defendants to withdraw plea agreements in cases where there has been "manifest injustice."

But in courts here and across the country, such allowances are rare. When the withdrawal of a plea is allowed, the injustice usually is obvious, such as a defendant being denied access to a lawyer, said Jack King, staff attorney with the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Even if Craig is allowed to withdraw his plea and decides to stay in the Senate, his future is far from rosy.

Minnesota prosecutors could refile the charges against Craig, and possibly reinstitute the more serious charge of invasion of privacy for allegedly peeking through a bathroom stall door. If found guilty of that charge, Craig could face up to a year in jail.

Fellow Republicans have, quietly and publicly, called for Craig to resign. If Craig remains in office, he would face an embarrassing Senate Ethics Committee investigation into the arrest.

"The Republican Party just wants this to go away," said Greg Smith, an Idaho pollster who has worked for Craig.

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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