WASHINGTON - Senator Larry Craig should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea in a sex sting because he was under extreme stress after being hounded by journalists asking questions about his sexuality, his lawyer said.
Craig, an Idaho Republican, pleaded guilty in August to disorderly conduct following a sting operation in a men's bathroom at the Minneapolis airport. His lawyer, William Martin, said he will file court documents trying to undo that decision so Craig can fight the charge.
Martin said yesterday that Craig did not "knowingly and intelligently enter a guilty plea." The senator simply admitted conduct that "itself does not constitute a crime," Martin said.
"He admits to going into the bathroom, he admits to moving his foot, he admits to reaching his hand down," Martin said on NBC's "Today" show. "That's not a crime."
Persuading a judge to withdraw a guilty plea is difficult but Craig will argue he was under too much stress to knowingly plead guilty, Martin said.
"He was under tremendous pressure," Martin said in a telephone interview.
In particular, Martin cited pressure from Craig's hometown newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, which spent months investigating whether Craig engaged in homosexual encounters.
Craig, who has denied such suggestions and accused the newspaper of conducting a witch hunt, was so concerned about that investigation that he quickly pleaded guilty when arrested in the bathroom sex sting, Martin said. Craig did not consult with a lawyer or appear in court.
He figured, "I'm innocent but if this will make it go away I'll do it," Martin said.
A police report alleged that Craig had solicited sex from a male officer by moving his foot and using hand gestures in June.
Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which runs the airport, declined to comment on Martin's arguments.
"We do feel we have a strong case, and he's already made his plea, and it's been accepted by the court," Hogan said yesterday. Craig will argue in court documents that he cannot have pleaded guilty because what he did was not illegal. The police officer said Craig bumped his foot, then tried to signal him with hand gestures.
Craig maintains he inadvertently touched the officer's foot. but made no hand gestures. He said he was merely picking up a piece of paper.
"Even if you accept that he did what he did, it's not a crime," Martin said.
Appearing on CNN's "Late Edition," Republican Senator Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, said Craig is entitled to his day in court. "Maybe he'll be convicted, but I doubt it," said Specter, the Senate Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican.
Specter said when he learned the details of the arrest, "I was convinced that he couldn't be convicted if he fought the case."
Minnesota law is that a guilty plea may be withdrawn if it was not intelligently made "and what Senator Craig did was by no means intelligent," said Specter.