Ethics Panel Investigation of Craig Has Little Precedent

Posted August 30, 2007 at 2:32pm

The Senate GOP leadership’s call this week for an ethics investigation into Sen. Larry Craig’s (R-Idaho) arrest and guilty plea in the wake of a June incident in the Minneapolis airport bathroom raises significant questions about just what, if any, Senate rules Craig may have violated.

In their Aug. 29 letter to the Senate Ethics Committee, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and four other Senate GOP leaders refer only to the fact that Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in asking the panel to look at potential ethics violations. But because Craig’s admitted offense is considered a minor crime, a handful of current and former Senate aides are questioning the leadership’s rationale for requesting a probe of a crime that does not appear to be related to Craig’s “official” Senate duties.

“I am not aware of any case in which a Senator was investigated [by the Ethics Committee] because he or she was alleged to have violated a law and there was no nexus between the conduct and the Senator’s Senate service,” said Wilson Abney, who worked for the panel as both counsel and staff director from 1980 to 1992.

Most scandal-plagued Members have resigned before pleading or being found guilty of felonies or offenses related to their service in Congress.

Abney said the only apparent link between Craig’s case and an official rules violation is “his alleged use of his position as a Senator to intimidate a law enforcement” officer. The police report on the June 11 incident says Craig pulled out his business card identifying himself as a U.S. Senator and said to the arresting officer, “What do you think about that?”

According to an aide who confirmed its contents, GOP leaders wrote in their letter to the Ethics panel: “We have learned that Sen. Craig has pled guilty to disorderly conduct following certain publicly reported actions in the Minneapolis airport. This is a serious matter, and we request that the Ethics Committee review the incident and the subsequent legal proceedings.”

However, there are no written rules or guidelines in the Ethics Manual for dealing with a Member who has pleaded guilty to or is suspected of breaking any law not related to his official duties. The Ethics Manual is devoted exclusively to issues such as campaign finance guidelines, conflicts of interests, disclosure requirements, franking, travel restrictions, lobbying, gifts and nepotism.

One senior Senate GOP aide said the call for an investigation was less about whether Craig violated Senate rules than it was about trying to insulate Republican leaders from charges that they were condoning his alleged behavior.

“Whether or not the Ethics Committee does something on this issue is a separate issue,” the aide said. “Politically, the leadership has protected itself in a serious matter, and the media and the public see that we’re not protecting one of our own.”

Still, the panel, at the very least, must open a preliminary inquiry into every complaint it receives, according to the Senate Ethics Manual. That inevitability led a number of Republican aides to express reservations about the potential for a slippery slope in calling for probes of minor offenses.

While the police report includes salacious details alleging that Craig used several well-known signals to indicate he wanted to engage in public sexual activity with an undercover airport police officer, his official plea was for the misdemeanor disorderly conduct offense. A separate misdemeanor charge of “interference with privacy,” which is partially defined as “peeping,” was dropped, but could have potentially caused more problems for Craig in terms of Senate Ethics charges.

The Senate GOP leadership aide explained that Senate Republican leaders regard the allegations as serious, regardless of the relatively minor nature of the charges against Craig.

“It is a misdemeanor, but it also is not a small deal,” the aide said.

In calls for Craig to resign, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have made the distinction that Members who plead guilty to crimes, as opposed to those merely accused, should not continue to serve in the chamber.

However, there is at least one high-profile precedent for admitting to a crime and remaining in office: Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a crime after a 1969 car crash that killed his young female passenger. Abney said partisan-tinged calls during the 1980s for an ethics investigation into Kennedy’s actions were not heeded by the committee.

The panel’s creators in 1964 envisioned the Ethics Committee as an adjudicator of any and all conduct that brings the Senate into disrepute, but of the 36 public allegations the panel has considered, none dealt with crimes unrelated to a Senator’s official duties, according to Abney’s recollection. However, the committee often deals with complaints confidentially, so it is unclear whether they have ever addressed such issues.

Of two other known sexual misconduct complaints, allegations that former Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) sexually harassed staffers were deemed to fall within the rubric of “official duties.” In a letter regarding a complaint against former Sen. Brock Adams (D-Wash.) for allegedly drugging and raping women, the committee declined to investigate because a U.S. attorney probing the allegations had not found sufficient evidence to indict Adams, Abney said.

Current Ethics Committee staff director Robert Walker declined to comment for this article.