BOISE – Embattled Sen. Larry Craig launched his legal defense against a Senate ethics complaint Wednesday as part of a last-ditch attempt to clear his name and keep his U.S. Senate seat.
Craig contended that his arrest and guilty plea in an airport restroom sex-solicitation sting were unrelated to his duties in Congress, and therefore didn’t fall under the ethics committee’s jurisdiction. But the committee issued a letter late Wednesday to Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell that rejected that argument.
Citing the Senate Ethics Manual, the committee noted it “may discipline a member for any misconduct, including conduct or activity which does not directly relate to official duties, when such conduct unfavorably reflects on the institution as a whole.”
The bipartisan committee’s heads, Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Vice Chairman John Cornyn, R-Texas, also suggested in the letter that the panel will drop the investigation if Craig resigns.
“In past matters the committee has closed inquiries where the subject of the inquiry has resigned or otherwise concluded his or her Senate service. On September 1, 2007, Senator Craig announced his intent to resign from the Senate, effective September 30,” the two senators wrote.
Craig responded, “It is my intent to fight the case before the ethics committee while I am a sitting senator. I would prefer to have that case resolved on its merits.”
In a press release, Craig said the letter “does not address the arguments laid out by my attorney earlier today. I hope that committee addresses those arguments sooner, rather than later, so that I can have my name cleared.”
Craig’s attorney, Stan Brand, told The Spokesman-Review, “In the 220 recorded years of history, the Senate has never disciplined someone for misdemeanor conduct not arising from their official duties, period. I don’t know how else to say that. There’s a good reason for that, I think, and that is, that’s just not something the Senate wants to get into.” Brand said he’s sure other senators have misdemeanors on their records, “and I’m sure there are more who will in the future – and that’s why I don’t think the committee has wanted to open that floodgate.”
Police reports from the incident in Minneapolis include a note that at one point, Craig handed his U.S. Senate business card to the arresting officer and asked him, “What do you think about that?”
Brand said, “That’s who he is – that’s like identifying yourself. I don’t see why that’s a problem. He couldn’t deny his status.”
Craig’s communications director, Dan Whiting, said the ethics committee letter wasn’t conclusive. While the committee has broad latitude to act, it’s never done so in such cases, he said. “… Misdemeanor is a pretty broad category. And really, all Senator Craig pleaded to was disorderly conduct.”
McConnell told reporters Wednesday he had talked with Craig, and Craig plans to try to get the case against him in Minnesota dismissed. Craig maintains an undercover police officer misconstrued his actions, and his guilty plea was a mistake.
Craig has opened the door to staying in the Senate if he can clear his name – both in the Minnesota case and in the ethics case – by Sept. 30. On Saturday, he said it was his “intent” to resign Sept. 30.
A telephone voice-mail message left by Craig at a wrong number shortly before his press conference Saturday said he’d changed his statement, adding the word “intent.” Craig said in the message, obtained by the Washington, D.C., newspaper Roll Call and aired widely Wednesday, that GOP Sen. Arlen Specter would publicly support him, and that “this thing could take a new turn or a new shape, or has that potential.”
On Tuesday night, Craig, through his spokesman, said he might stay in the Senate rather than resign if he can resolve his legal problems.
The move brought mixed reviews in Idaho on Wednesday as the story became national news for a 10th straight day.
Kootenai County Republican Party Chairman Brad Corkill said, “What happened last week was a very unfortunate series of events, and when Saturday came around, we thought it was all behind us. … I personally feel like maybe on Saturday morning I was toyed with a little bit.”
State Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “You can’t blame a guy for wanting to clear his name.” But Bedke added, “For somebody who has been a Larry Craig supporter, this has been hard to watch.”
Brand filed a letter with the ethics committee early Wednesday asking that the ethics complaint against Craig, filed by Senate GOP leaders, be dismissed. He then went on national TV talk and news programs, speaking out against the committee pursuing its investigation.
Craig’s defiance left Republican leaders in Washington quietly dismayed. They had pressured him last week to step down.
McConnell twice declined to answer when asked whether he believes Craig should quit. “My view remains what I said last Saturday. I thought he made the difficult but correct decision to resign. That would still be my view today,” he said.
It was not clear when Craig’s attorneys intend to file papers in Minnesota to have his plea withdrawn. The senator signed a plea agreement, pleading guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct, on Aug. 1, and sent it in by mail. It was recorded Aug. 8.
Craig signed the agreement four times, including just below these statements: “I understand that the court will not accept a plea of guilty from anyone who claims to be innocent. I now make no claim that I am innocent of the charge to which I am entering a plea of guilty.”
McConnell and the rest of the Republican leadership last week asked the ethics committee to look into Craig’s case, then stripped the senator of his committee leadership posts, as part of an effort to push him into resignation.