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BOISE, Idaho (Reuters) - Republican U.S. Senator Larry Craig said on Tuesday he is not gay and had made a mistake in pleading guilty to disorderly conduct after he was arrested in a men's toilet at a Minnesota airport in June.
First elected to the Senate in 1990, the Idaho senator was arrested by a plainclothes police officer investigating complaints of lewd conduct in the men's public restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
"I am not gay, I never have been gay," Craig told a news conference in Boise, Idaho, and apologized to the people of Idaho for what he said was a "cloud" over the state because of the incident. "I did nothing wrong," he said.
The conservative Republican, who has spoken out against gay rights and same-sex marriage, said he would announce next month, as planned, whether to seek re-election next year.
Craig, 62, is a married father of three.
Republican leaders requested a Senate ethics panel investigation and said they were "examining other aspects of the case to determine if additional action is required."
A grim-faced Craig, whose wife, Suzanne, stood silently by his side at the news conference, appeared defiant in the face of the furor over the incident.
"While I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct at the Minneapolis airport or anywhere else, I chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge in the hope of making it go away," he read from a prepared statement.
"I did not seek any counsel, either from an attorney, staff, friends, or family. That was a mistake, and I deeply regret it."
In his August 8 plea, Craig said, "I am pleading guilty to the charge of disorderly conduct...specifically in the restroom of the North Star Crossing in the Lindbergh Terminal. I did the following: Engaged in conduct which I knew or should have known tended to arouse alarm or resentment of others."
Craig said he had acted hastily in accepting the guilty plea because of what he called a "witch hunt" by the Idaho Statesman newspaper.
"In pleading guilty, I overreacted in Minneapolis, because of the stress of the Idaho Statesman's investigation and the rumours it has fuelled around Idaho. Again, that overreaction was a mistake, and I apologize for my misjudgement," he said.
He declined to answer questions after his statement.
Since details of Craig's arrest emerged late Monday, the three-term senator has resigned as Idaho chairman of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign.
"It reminds us of the fact that people who are elected to public office continue to disappoint," Romney told CNBC. "And we've seen disappointment in the White House, we've seen it in the Senate, we've seen it in Congress. And frankly, it's disgusting."
Kirk Sullivan, chairman of the Idaho Republican party who said he had known Craig since the mid 1970s, attended the announcement. "We're going to support Senator Craig to the best of our ability," he said. "He knows he made an improper judgment. He is on the right course to correct it."
But Bryan Fischer, executive director of the Idaho Values Alliance, a conservative Christian group, called on Craig to step down. "I still believe it would be appropriate for him to resign," he said.
Craig is up for re-election next year. He is a former member of the Senate's Republican leadership and played an active role in the 1998 impeachment of former President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.
Democrats currently have an effective a 51-49 majority in the Senate.