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Craig's Ethics Case: A Lengthy Process Likely

Now that he's decided to remain in office through next year, Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) still must deal with an internal investigation from the Ethics Committee following a June 11 arrest stemming from an airport restroom gay-sex sting.

But for those looking for a quick verdict -- something that might embarrass Craig into retiring early, before the election season heats up next year -- think again. In the last two decades, the Senate Ethics Committee has taken more than a year to handle all but one of its investigations. [A sampling of five probes over the last 20 years is at the end of this post.]

And the likelihood of public hearings, floated as a possibility last month by GOP aides anxious to see Craig resign, is not high given the panel's closed-door nature. Only once in the last 20 years - during the so-called Keating Five investigation - has the Ethics committee ever opened its doors for a public airing of evidence and testimony against a fellow senator.

For now the committee has begun what is known as a "preliminary inquiry" surrounding Craig's disorderly conduct guilty plea from the arrest in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. While the panel can issue subpoenas and interview witnesses, including the target of the probe, this is similar to a grand-jury phase of a criminal investigation. Since there is no Senate rule specifically dealing with arrests in airport restrooms, the committee will try to determine whether Craig's actions broke the chamber's prohibition against "improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate". This is an intentionally vague phrase meant to cover conduct that the committee could not foresee coming.

For those expecting a harsh punishment of Craig -- either being expelled or a formal reprimand -- that's not very likely, either, given recent history. According to the committee's manual, it needs to find "substantial credible evidence" of a serious breach by Craig for it to essentially indict him and move into what is known as an adjudicatory review. That "adjudicatory" stage of an investigation resembles an actual trial, creating the most likely time when hearings might be held. The six-senator committee, led by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.), would determine whether those hearings were open. But in the past decade the committee has not moved beyond any preliminary inquiries, settling cases by either dismissing them entirely or giving a letter of admonishment.

And while Craig's actions have provoked outcries on both ends of the political spectrum, the allegations against him are not seriously connected to his official duties, unlike other recent investigations involving bribery and corruption accusations. So, if the Ethics Committee sticks to its most recent history, then some time next year Craig would be receiving some sort of letter rebuking his actions, unless he's successful in persuading the panel to clear him entirely.

Here's a rundown of five investigations of the last two decades and their outcome:

• Keating Five, December 1989-November 1991. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), John Glenn (D-Ohio), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Donald Riegle (D-Mich.) all were accused of interfering with regulators examining the failed savings and loan run by Charles Keating, who had contributed large sums to each of them. In November 1990 the panel held public hearings which were hailed as "unprecedented". Four of the five were reprimanded in February 1991, a light punishment, but Cranston was considered more culpable. It took another nine months to conclude his case, during which then-freshman Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) acted secretly as Cranston's counsel and go-between with the panel. Almost two years after the probe started Cranston was officially reprimanded by the committee, which presented its case on the Senate floor. Cranston retired in 1992 and was succeeded by Boxer.
• Bob Packwood, November 1992-September 1995. The Oregon Republican, shortly after his re-election in 1992, was accused of inappropriate sexual advances to women, including his own staff. The panel subpoenaed his private diaries in October 1993, leading to an adjudicatory hearing behind closed doors in the summer of 1995. After the committee recommended his expulsion - the first such vote since that against Sen. Harrison A. Williams (D-N.J.) in 1982 during the Abscam scandal - Packwood resigned.
• Robert Torricelli, January-July 2002. The New Jersey Democrat's investigation is the quickest case in recent times. The panel moved as quickly as it did because the Justice Department had already conducted a long investigation against Torricelli, declining to indict him but forwarding all its files to the committee. After interviews with federal investigators and the senator, the panel issued a public letter "severely admonishing" him for accepting thousands of dollars of inappropriate gifts while trying to help a donor. He withdrew from his re-election bid two months after the admonishment.
• Richard Shelby, July 2004-November 2005. The Alabama Republican also was the target of a Justice probe, relating to allegations he leaked classified intelligence to CNN relating to pre-9/11 intercepts of terrorist discussions. As in the Torricelli case, federal prosecutors did not bring an indictment and forwarded their files to Ethics. The committee cleared him of any wrongdoing.
• Pete Domenici, March 2007-present. The New Mexico Republican has been under investigation for more than seven months for his role in the firing of U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias, which came shortly after a testy phone call Domenici had with the prosecutor relating to a corruption case of Albuquerque Democrats. Like the case with Shelby - which dealt with the relatively simple issue of whether he leaked the information - this case resolves around one phone call and its aftermath. The committee has shown no signs of being close to resolving the case. Domenici announced last week his intention to retire.

By Paul Kane  |  October 9, 2007; 9:05 AM ET
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