WASHINGTON -- She is viewed as one of the most influential staffers on Capitol Hill, the "gatekeeper" for her boss -- and husband -- House Speaker Thomas S. Foley.
Around the House she has gained power -- some say notoriety -- by doling out office space, claiming vacant rooms and overseeing renovations.
Now, Heather Foley, a folksy 51-year-old lawyer who favors sneakers and flowing cotton dresses and eschews social engagements, is in the midst of an investigation that has left the House reeling and her husband politically vulnerable.
"The criticism is that she speaks for the speaker," said an aide to one top Democrat. "The question is whether Foley has delegated or whether she has taken."
Said a Republican leadership aide: "She's a very elusive type person. She works behind the scenes. I think she always knows what's going on. People won't talk about her because they know how powerful she is."
Mrs. Foley last week voluntarily testified before a federal grand jury investigating charges of theft and drug dealing at the House post office, where three employees have been charged with embezzlement and a fourth is awaiting trial.
The grand jury also is trying to determine whether there was an effort by Mrs. Foley, who serves as her husband's unpaid chief of staff, and House counsel Steven R. Ross to impede an investigation at the post office, according to news reports. Mr. Ross denies it, saying he only wanted the investigation taken over by the Postal Inspection Service, which he believed would be more capable. Mrs. Foley declined to be interviewed.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported yesterday that the U.S. attorney's office is looking into possible obstruction of justice at the post office. At the same time, the speaker's office yesterday released a letter from the U.S. attorney's office stating that Mrs. Foley "was neither a subject nor target" of the investigation.
"Beyond that I don't want to discuss the U.S. attorney's investigation," said Mrs. Foley's attorney, Steven C. Tabackman.
Mrs. Foley also is expected to testify before a Administration Committee task force, which is looking into management of the post office.
Despite her reputation, another aide to a Washington state congressman sees a different side to Mrs. Foley, calling her a "reticent" woman, competent, professional and thoughtful, who works hard to maintain the speaker's standing in his home state.
The aide, and a former Republican leadership staffer, doubt that Mrs. Foley was involved in trying to impede an investigation. The former leadership aide said Mrs. Foley is an easy target, partly because of her almost hippylike dress and demeanor. One congressman once referred to her as "Pocahontas."
"She dances to a different drummer," the former aide said.
The post office probe comes as a review is under way to determine whether there was any violations of campaign, banking or disclosurelaws at the House bank.
The bank, described as lax and haphazard, closed in December after it was revealed that lawmakers had written thousands of overdrafts. Mr. Foley, who learned of the bank troubles in December 1989, has admitted that he should have moved faster to deal with the matter.
In early 1991, the speaker asked Riggs National Bank to make recommendations on improving the House bank. In April 1991, Riggs officials reported their findings to Mrs. Foley with recommendations to continue, restrict or eliminate the overdraft practices. But the House ethics committee, which completed its review of the bank earlier this month, was uncertain what effect "if any" the report had on bank practices.
A Michigan native, Mrs. Foley is the daughter of a career official with the U.S. Agency for International Development. She came to Capitol Hill in the early 1960s, landing a job with Sen. Henry M. Jackson, a Washington state Democrat. It was in the office where she met her future husband, who also was on the senator's staff.
Until recently, Mrs. Foley was famed on the Hill for being what was euphemistically called "real estate conscious."
"When you need office space you deal with Heather," a former House aide said.
When her husband became speaker in 1989, the aide said, "there was a perception she was clearing a path through the House like Attila the Hun." She renovated the House restaurant, put in bathrooms and shifted offices. Several aides said Mrs. Foley was behind the relocation of the House Document Room from the Capitol building to House Annex 2, an area on the outskirts of the Hill known as "Siberia."