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U.S. News

No decision in Sen. Craig sex plea case

EDINA, Minnesota (Reuters) - A Minnesota judge said on Wednesday that he would make no immediate decision on U.S. Sen. Larry Craig’s bid to take back the guilty plea he made after a sex-sting arrest, and the Idaho Republican left it unclear whether he would resign next week as he said he would.

Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho walks from the Senate Chamber in the Capitol in Washington September 18, 2007. A Minnesota judge said on Wednesday he would make no immediate decision on a bid by Craig take back the guilty plea he made after a sex sting arrest, leaving the Idaho Republican's future in the Senate uncertain. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

“Today was a major step in the legal effort to clear my name. The court has not issued a ruling on my motion to withdraw my guilty plea. For now, I will continue my work in the United States Senate ...” Craig said.

He issued the statement on his Web site after Judge Charles Porter of the Hennepin County District Court adjourned the case for at least a week. At the hearing, Craig’s lawyers argued he panicked and was rushed into pleading guilty after an undercover officer arrested him in a men’s room at the Minneapolis Airport.

Craig had said he would resign from the Senate on Sunday but might reconsider if he could take back the plea and try to clear his name.

Craig became a major embarrassment for Republicans, particularly since they promote their party as the one that stands for conservative family values.

Democrats won control of Congress in last year’s elections amid a series of Republican scandals, including one involving a Florida congressman sending sexually suggestive electronic messages to teen-age male interns.

If Craig resigns from the Senate, Idaho Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter will name a successor to complete his six-year term that runs until January 2009. There would be no change in the balance of power in the Senate, now narrowly controlled by Democrats, since Otter appears virtually certain to name another Republican.

Judge Porter responded with skepticism to several arguments made by Craig’s lawyer, William Martin. Craig did not attend the proceedings, remaining on Capitol Hill.

NO INTENTIONS IN BATHROOM

Martin said the 62-year-old Craig had “no intentions” when he looked into the undercover agent’s bathroom stall, sat in the adjacent stall, tapped his foot, touched the officer’s foot, and put his hand under the divider.

Judge Porter responded that when someone looks in the door of a stall, you should expect it would “inflame anger.”

Prosecutor Christopher Renz cited a “series of invasions” during the encounter, starting when Craig gazed for two minutes into the officer’s stall.

Craig had more than a month after the June 11 arrest to reconsider his guilty plea or hire a lawyer, Renz said, and he only contested his plea to a disorderly conduct charge when there was “political fallout.”

In a transaction by mail, Craig was ordered to pay the $575 fine and given a 10-day suspended sentence. But Craig’s lawyers argued that had he instead been in court to answer the charges before a judge, he would have denied soliciting sex.

Steve Simon, a law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said Craig could have a case. One reason is that prosecutors failed to send Craig a court-approved plea petition form, which includes a clause advising the defendant his right to a lawyer.

“That is a significant argument ... the burden is on the state to show the plea is valid because he did not have a lawyer,” Simon said.

Martin told the court Craig’s guilty plea was “not voluntary, not intelligent and not accurate, and therefore constituted a manifest injustice.”

“We are not contesting any of the facts ... none of those facts constitute a crime,” he said.

Craig returned to Congress last week for the first time since the disclosure of his arrest and guilty plea. If he does stay, he will face a Senate Ethics Committee probe requested by Republican leadership, which is pressuring him to resign.

While the judge set no date for the next hearing, he indicated it would be late next week before his work load would allow him to return to the matter.

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