Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, strongly asserted this afternoon that he is not gay and that his decision to plead guilty to disorderly conduct in a public men's room was a mistake. The conservative senator was arrested in June on charges of lewd and disorderly conduct in a men's restroom at the Minneapolis, Minn., airport.
"Let me be clear, I am not gay. I never have been gay," Craig told reporters in Boise, Idaho.
Craig denied rumors that he would resign, but added that he would announce next month whether or not he will seek re-election.
"I did nothing wrong at the Minneapolis airport. I regret my decision to plead guilty and the sadness that decision has brought to my wife, family, friends, staff and fellow Idahoans. For that I apologize," he said.
"In June, I overreacted and made a poor decision. 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. I did not seek any counsel, either from an attorney, staff, friends or family. That was a mistake, and I deeply regret it. Because of that, I have now retained counsel and I am asking my counsel to review this matter and to advise me on how to proceed," Craig said.
It would be a rare case in Minneapolis if Craig were permitted to withdraw his guilty plea. Jeff Mohr, a criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis, told ABC News, "It's a final thing. If you put in a plea, that's usually that. Unless there are some really unusual circumstances, you wouldn't be able to withdraw it."
If there were some procedural errors in the handling of his case, the senator may have an option to withdraw the plea, Mohr said. If, for example, Craig didn't understand his right to a lawyer and trial, or understand the charge against him, or knowingly and voluntarily waive his rights, he might have a basis to withdraw his plea.
Craig's colleagues in the Senate, including Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Republican Whip Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, had earlier described his arrest as a "serious matter" and recommended that the incident be reported to the Senate Ethics Committee for its review.
Senator Dogged by Sexuality Rumors
Long dogged by rumors about his sexuality, the married three-term senator — who opposes extending special protections to gay and lesbian crime victims — was arrested June 11 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on charges of lewd and disorderly conduct in a men's restroom.
Craig said he decided to plead guilty to put the matter behind him quickly spurred and that his hasty decision was spurred by what he described as a "witch hunt" carried out by an Idaho newspaper. For eight months, Craig said, "my family and I had been relentlessly and viciously harassed by the Idaho Statesman [newspaper]." The newspaper was investigating him for alleged homosexual encounters in public restrooms.
As rumors swirled through the Beltway that Craig might step down, some of his longtime allies denounced his behavior and called for his resignation.
"If the accusations are true, then we think that he needs to resign," Bryan Fischer, the executive director of the Idaho Values Alliance, told ABCNEWS.com. "We believe that character is an important qualification for public service and we believe if these accounts are true, then the senator's conduct has fallen short of what we should expect from public officials."
Fischer, who supports the senator's anti-abortion policy and his opposition to gay marriage, said that many of his fellow Idahoans were not surprised to hear about the arrest.
"I don't think people were shocked because these rumors had circulated for years, but people in Idaho feel tremendous disappointment. You know that they feel they have been let down by another public figure. I've heard from some in our alliance, virtually everyone was aware that the rumors had circulated and they're disappointed that there might have been some fire behind that smoke," he said.
Staffers Stunned by News
Some of Craig's former staffers reacted in disbelief, doubting accounts of the incident despite the senator's guilty plea and the police report.
"Larry Craig has integrity, is credible and I know he has done the best thing he can," former campaign aide John Keenan told ABCNEWS.com. "I do not believe the allegations and neither do the people I've talked to — current and former staffers."
Keenan worked for Craig during congressional page scandal in the early 1980s, in which two senators were censured for having sex with underage pages. Though Craig's name never surfaced in the investigation, he preemptively denied any inappropriate behavior with pages. "I can tell you his reaction was disbelief. It was a charge that was incredible, nonbelievable and he responded and asserted it was not true and that's how he conveyed it to not only his staff, but to the press," said Keenan. "I believed him then and still believe him now."
A longtime neighbor of Craig was also shocked. Ed Johnson, the openly gay assistant director of the American Humanists Association, said that Craig stays on a boat next to Johnson's marina.
"I've known Larry socially for about 10 years, maybe, it's been awhile. It's hard for me to imagine [the rumors]," said Johnson. "I work for a very progressive organization and I'm a very liberal gay man. I wouldn't hesitate to out him if I've ever heard anything. It's just hard for me to imagine."
Craig's spokesman, Sidney Smith, said it was uncertain late Monday if Craig's guilty plea would affect his re-election plans. "It's too early to talk about anything about that," Smith said.
A political science professor in Idaho said Craig's political future was in jeopardy and Hannah August, a spokesman for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said Craig's guilty plea "has given Americans another reason not to vote Republican" next year.
Earlier today, liberal action group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint against Craig with the Senate Ethics Committee, asking the panel to investigate whether the lawmaker had violated the Senate Rules of Conduct by pleading guilty to disorderly conduct.
"If pleading guilty to charges stemming from an attempt to solicit an undercover officer in a public restroom is not conduct that reflects poorly upon the Senate, what is?" asked CREW's executive director, Melanie Sloan.
Craig said in a statement issued by his office Monday that he was not involved in any inappropriate conduct.
"At the time of this incident, I complained to the police that they were misconstruing my actions," he said. "I should have had the advice of counsel in resolving this matter. In hindsight, I should not have pled guilty. I was trying to handle this matter myself quickly and expeditiously."
What makes the case all the more problematic for Craig are the rumors regarding his sexuality that have circulated for decades. In 1982, as a congressman, Craig denied inappropriate relationships with male pages. In 1994, according to an Idaho newspaper report, he denied allegations that he had tried to pick up a man in a Boise sporting goods store and he told the newspaper in May that he had never engaged in any homosexual acts.
The arrest casts doubt on his political future, said Jasper LiCalzi, a political science professor at Albertson College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho. He cited the House page scandal that drove Republican Florida Rep. Mark Foley from office.
"There's a chance that he'll resign over this," LiCalzi said. "With the pressure on the Republican Party, he could be pressured to resign. If they think this is going to be something that's the same as Mark Foley, the sort of 'Drip, drip, drip, there's more information that's going to come out' they may try to push him out."
Details of the Incident
Already Craig has stepped down from a prominent role with Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. He had been one of Romney's top Senate supporters, serving as a Senate liaison for the campaign since February.
"He did not want to be a distraction and we accept his decision," said Matt Rhoades, a Romney campaign spokesman.
According to a Hennepin County, Minn., court docket, Craig pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge Aug. 8, with the court dismissing a charge of gross misdemeanor interference to privacy.
The court docket said Craig paid $575 in fines and fees and was put on unsupervised probation for a year. A sentence of 10 days in the county workhouse was stayed.
Craig has chalked up both his arrest and guilty plea for disorderly conduct to a big misunderstanding.
Less than 10 minutes elapsed from the time a plainclothes police officer said he noticed Craig in the bathroom and Craig's subsequent arrest for lewd conduct.
According to the arrest report, however, there was little doubt in the mind of undercover officer who arrested Craig in the main restroom of the Lindbergh terminal that the Idaho Republican was trying to engage in some sort of sexual activity. The officer was participating in an undercover bathroom sting because there had been complaints about lewd activity in the bathroom and police had made similar arrests there in the past.
According to the arrest complaint, airport police Sgt. Dave Karsnia went into a stall shortly after noon on June 11 and closed the door.
Minutes later, the officer saw an older, gray-haired man, later identified as Craig, gaze into his stall through the crack between the stall door and the frame, fidget with his fingers and return to gazing through the stall for about an additional two minutes.
After a man in the adjacent stall flushed the toilet and left, Craig entered it and put his roller bag against the front of the stall door, "which Sgt. Karsnia's experience has indicated is used to attempt to conceal sexual conduct by blocking the view from the front of the stall," said the complaint, which was dated June 25.
The complaint said Craig then tapped his right foot several times and moved it closer to Karsnia's stall and then moved it into the area of the officer's stall to where it touched Karsnia's foot. Karsnia recognized that "as a signal often used by persons communicating a desire to engage in sexual conduct," the complaint said.
Under the Stall
Craig then passed his left hand under the stall divider into Karsnia's stall with his palms up and guided it along the divider toward the front of the stall three times, the complaint said.
The officer then showed his police identification under the divider and pointed toward the exit "at which time the defendant exclaimed 'No!'" the complaint said.
Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper that first reported the case, quoted the Aug. 8 police report as saying that Craig had handed the arresting officer a business card that identified him as a member of the Senate.
"What do you think about that?" Craig is alleged to have said, according to the report.
According to the police report, Craig, who was not handcuffed during the arrest, was reluctant to leave the bathroom. But when Karsnia reassured him that they "would speak in a private area without embarrassing him or causing a disturbance," Craig complied.
Reached by phone, the assisting officer declined comment beyond confirming the details in the police report. Noel Nelson helped Karsnia escort Craig to the airport's police operations center. Because Craig was worried about missing his flight, Nelson called the airline, but he didn't get an answer. Did Craig miss his flight while he was photographed and fingerprinted? "I couldn't tell you that," said Nelson.
A week and a half later, Craig returned to the airport's police operations center because he needed a contact for his lawyer. The senator was "agitated and demeaning" during his conversation with police officer Adam Snedker on June 22, according to the police report.
Craig joins other GOP senators facing ethical and legal troubles.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is under scrutiny for his relationship with a contractor who helped oversee a renovation project that more than doubled the size of the senator's home.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., acknowledged that his phone number appeared in records of a Washington-area business that prosecutors have said was a front for prostitution.
Craig, a rancher and a member of the National Rifle Association, lives in Eagle, Idaho, near the state capital, Boise. He was a member of the House for 10 years before winning election to the Senate in 1990. He was re-elected in 1996 and 2002.
Last fall, Craig called allegations from a gay-rights activist that he's had homosexual relationships "completely ridiculous."
Mike Rogers, who bills himself as a gay activist blogger, published the allegations on his Web site, http://www.blogactive.com, in October 2006.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, an advocacy group, on Monday called Craig a hypocrite.
"What's up with elected officials like Sen. Craig? They stand for so-called family values and fight basic protections for gay people while furtively seeking other men for sex," Foreman said.
Associated Press writers Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis and John Miller in Boise contributed to this story.