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GOP seeks probe of Idaho senator

Craig denies accusations of lewd conduct

Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, at a news conference with his wife, Suzanne, at his side, was at times defiant, at others apologetic. 'Please let me apologize to my family, friends, and staff and fellow Idahoans for the cloud placed over Idaho,' he said. Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, at a news conference with his wife, Suzanne, at his side, was at times defiant, at others apologetic. "Please let me apologize to my family, friends, and staff and fellow Idahoans for the cloud placed over Idaho," he said. (Joe Jaszewski/Idaho Statesman)

WASHINGTON -- Senate GOP leaders called for an ethics investigation of Senator Larry Craig yesterday as he dug in for a legal and political fight to save his congressional career after acknowledging he had pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct charges stemming from an incident with an undercover police officer in an airport men's room.

Craig denied doing anything wrong and said he had "overreacted" in pleading guilty after his June 11 arrest at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He said he is not gay and vowed to continue to serve in the Senate.

"While I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct at the Minneapolis airport or anywhere else, I chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge in the hope of making it go away," Craig told reporters in Boise.

He said he had retained a lawyer to review his guilty plea, though earlier this month he signed court papers declaring he had read the police report and understood the nature of the crime and paid a $500 fine -- which defense specialists said would make any challenge difficult.

Craig said that he pleaded guilty because his hometown newspaper, the Idaho Statesman of Boise, had been conducting an eight-month investigation into his sexual orientation. He said he hoped that quietly resolving the case -- without telling any of his family, friends, staff, or colleagues -- would settle the matter without bringing it to light for the newspaper's "witch hunt."

"Let me be clear: I am not gay and never have been," he said.

The Senate Republican leadership issued a rare joint statement minutes before Craig's news conference, complaining none of the senators was told of Craig's legal troubles until yesterday. The GOP senators asked the Ethics Committee to investigate, vowing to consider other punitive sanctions.

"This is a serious matter. Due to the reported and disputed circumstances, and the legal resolution of this serious case, we will recommend that Senator Craig's incident be reported to the Senate Ethics Committee for its review. In the meantime, leadership is examining other aspects of the case to determine if additional action is required," minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, minority whip Trent Lott of Mississippi, and three other elected leaders said.

The only GOP leader not on the statement is Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who is vice chairman of the ethics panel to which the Craig case is being referred.

In his statement, Craig apologized to his family, friends, staff, and constituents but never apologized to his Senate colleagues.

Yesterday, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose Idaho presidential campaign Craig headed until the charges came to light, compared Craig's behavior to President Clinton's encounters with a White House intern and to former representative Mark Foley, Republican of Florida, who resigned in a scandal involving male House pages.

"I think it reminds us of the fact that people who are elected to public office continue to disappoint, and they somehow think that if they vote the right way on issues of significance or they can speak a good game, that we'll just forgive and forget," Romney said on CNBC's "Kudlow & Company." "We've seen disappointment in the White House, we've seen it in the Senate, we've seen it in Congress, and frankly, it's disgusting."

Craig was once a rising GOP star. In the early 1990s he chaired the informal Steering Committee, a group of conservatives who pushed a right-wing agenda because they were leery of their moderate Republican elders. In 1996 Craig was elected Republican Policy Committee chairman, the number four leadership post, which he held through 2002 when he lost a bid against McConnell to claim the Republican whip's post, the number two leadership position. Craig is a member of the board of the National Rifle Association. Like most of his fellow Republicans, Craig has opposed gay rights, voting in favor of a federal ban on gay marriage several times in recent years.

Craig is now fighting a multifront battle, first and foremost a longshot bid to undo his guilty plea and the likely ethics probe, while also trying to shore up support among his constituents in case he decides to seek a fourth six-year term in 2008. He said he would announce his decision on running next month.

Craig was arrested at the airport while changing flights on his way to Washington. Police said they were investigating complaints of sexual encounters by men in a restroom at the airport. The undercover officer was in a restroom stall when Craig sat in the stall next to him. Craig began tapping his right foot, touched his right foot to the left foot of the officer, and brushed his hand beneath the partition between them. He was then arrested.

Craig said yesterday that he agreed to plead guilty because of the pressure he felt from the Idaho Statesman's investigation. "I overreacted in Minneapolis, because of the stress of the Idaho Statesman's investigation and the rumors it has fueled around Idaho," Craig said in his prepared statement. He took no questions from reporters.

The paper reported on rumors that Craig had engaged in restroom sexual encounters with other men, including an anonymous man that the Statesman quoted in its report yesterday who claimed he had sex with Craig in a restroom at Washington's Union Station. In an interview with the newspaper in May, which was published yesterday, Craig denied having had gay sexual encounters and specifically denied restroom encounters.

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