WASHINGTON – Denying that he did anything wrong and stating emphatically that "I am not gay," Sen. Larry Craig asked the people of Idaho on Tuesday to forgive him for being arrested two months ago in a police sting in a men's room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Craig, who was taken into custody on June 11 by a plainclothes officer investigating reports of lewd conduct in the restroom, said he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge in an effort to suppress a story — pursued by his home-state newspaper — that he has secretly engaged in gay trysts.
Craig said the story has been following him for nearly a year.
"For eight months leading up to June 11th my family and I had been relentlessly and viciously harassed by the Idaho Statesman. If you saw the article today, you know why. Let me be clear: I am not gay. I never have been gay," Craig said in a news conference in his hometown of Boise.
"Still, without a shred of truth or evidence to the contrary, the Statesman has engaged in this witch hunt. In pleading guilty, I overreacted in Minneapolis because of the stress the Idaho Statesman investigation and the rumors it has fuelled all around Idaho. Again, that overreaction was a mistake and I apologize for my judgment," Craig said.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, Republican leaders announced they will launch an ethics review of the senator.
"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," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement on behalf of the party's Senate leadership.
Craig was arrested on June 11 by a plainclothes officer. The police report from Sgt. Dave Karsnia, who made the arrest after an encounter in which he was seated in a stall next to a stall occupied by Craig, described Craig tapping his foot and blocking the stall door with his roller luggage. Karsnia said he recognized the actions "as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct."
Craig pleaded guilty in a Hennepin County, Minn. court earlier this month. He claims he is innocent of anything untoward, but he should have consulted a lawyer rather than trying to brush the June incident under the rug. He paid a $575 fine and was given a stay on a 10-day prison sentence barring no further violations during one year of unsupervised probation.
Craig said Tuesday that he is now reviewing his actions with an attorney to see if he can reverse the damages.
"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 counsel to review this matter and to advise me on how to proceed," he said.
The senator has been debating whether to prolong his 27-year career as an elected official by running for a another term in office, and was expected to make an announcement next month. He said he will stick to that plan.
"Next month, I will announce, as planned, as many of you have already been told, whether or not I will seek re-election. As an elected official, I fully realize that my life is open for public criticism and scrutiny, and I take full responsibility for a lapse in judgment I made in attempting to handle this matter myself," he said.
"I am not gay. I love my wife, my family. I care about friends and staff and Idaho. I love serving this great state. Over the years, I have accomplished a lot for Idaho, and I hope Idahoans will allow me to continue to do that," he said.
Both friends and opponents are closely watching the latest events unfold. Idaho state Sen. R. Steven Bair told FOX News that if the allegation of Craig trying to initiate a gay sex tryst in the bathroom is true then the three-term senator is "about done politically."
Another Republican state senator, Charles Coiner, said Craig "has done a lot of good for Idaho." He said the rumors about sexual indiscretions have gone on for years but he never thought any of the claims had much significance, and it was part of the hardball tactics used against those in public service.
A spokeswoman for fellow Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, told FOX News that Crapo called Craig on Monday shortly after the story broke. She said her boss "considers Senator Craig a good friend as well as colleague."
"Senator Crapo supports any decisions Senator Craig makes regarding his political future and will not make any judgments regarding any part of the incident or any rumors regarding it," the spokeswoman said.
Earlier in the day, liberal government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Senate ethics committee seeking an investigation into whether Craig violated Senate rules by engaging in disorderly conduct.
"The Senate Ethics Manual provides that certain conduct may be improper even though it does not violate specific Senate rules or regulations. Such conduct has been characterized as 'improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate,'" CREW said in a press release. "This rule is intended to protect the integrity and reputation of the Senate as a whole."
The Senate Democratic Campaign Committee also hoped to capitalize on the disorderly conduct misdemeanor now on Craig's record. Spokeswoman Hannah August said the guilty plea "has given Americans another reason not to vote Republican."
But while Democrats look to exploit the incident for political gain, Republicans too are saying they are displeased with the turn of events. On Monday, Craig quit Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, where he was a co-chairman. Romney said Tuesday he didn't know whether Craig should resign from the Senate but he was very disappointed to read about the guilty plea.
"Once again, we've found people in Washington have not lived up to the level of respect and dignity that we would expect for somebody that gets elected to a position of high influence. Very disappointing," Romney told CNBC. "He's no longer associated with my campaign, as you can imagine."
A former Craig staffer called the senator's behavior stupid and selfish.
"I am disappointed by how he dealt with the situation," the staffer, who worked for Craig for a number of years, told FOX News.
Patrick Sammon, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican group, said by "his own admission," Craig violated the law, and voters should expect more from their representatives.
"Senator Larry Craig's ability to continue serving the people of Idaho is in serious doubt," Sammon said. "He has violated the public trust, not just with his inappropriate and illegal behavior, but in the subsequent explanation of his actions. Innocent people don't plead guilty. The time to contest these allegations would've been before his guilty plea."
Craig, 62, has a conservative record in the Senate — he has voted against gay marriage, opposed extending special protections to gay and lesbian crime victims and supported barring homosexuals from serving in the Boy Scouts. But Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey said Craig has never been cruel in his opposition to gay rights.
Allegations that Craig is a closet homosexual have dogged him since his college days in the 1960s, according to the 3,700-word article in Tuesday's edition.
During Craig's first term in Congress back in the early 1980s, when House and Senate members stood accused of abusing congressional pages, Craig took the unusual step of issuing a pre-emptive denial of involvement.
The paper said it had received allegations in May from a man who said he and Craig engaged in sex at a men's bathroom in Washington, D.C.'s Union Station. Another man claimed Craig eyed him up during a half-hour cat and mouse chase in a Boise, Idaho, store in 1994.
At the time, Craig called the charges scurrilous.
"I've been in this business 27 years in the public eye here. I don't go around anywhere hitting on men, and by God, if I did, I wouldn't do it in Boise, Idaho! Jiminy!" he told the newspaper.