House leadership defends handling of Foley scandal

Republican lawmakers launch campaign to contain political damage

October 03, 2006|By Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons | Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Dennis Hastert defended yesterday the Republican leadership's handling of a suggestive e-mail exchange between Rep. Mark Foley and an underage House page, conceding that the communication should have raised "a red flag" but arguing that their options were limited because the boy's parents wanted to avoid publicity.

Hastert and other Republican leaders launched a campaign to contain the political damage from Foley's inappropriate messages, seeking to counter Democratic charges of a cover-up amid signs of discontent from the Republican Party's social conservative base. Hastert said Foley, a Florida Republican who resigned his seat Friday, "duped a lot of people" and "deceived me too."

Foley, 52, who quit after ABC News revealed electronic messages of a more sexually explicit nature that he sent to teenage pages, announced yesterday that he had checked into an alcohol rehabilitation center for treatment, though he declined to identify the facility.

The six-term Florida lawmaker said in a statement that the "events that led to my resignation have crystallized recognition of my long-standing and significant alcoholism and emotional difficulties."

Though attorney David Roth denied Foley was a pedophile or had sexual relations with any of the pages, ABC News reported new messages yesterday in which Foley used sexual banter suggesting he wanted to meet with pages after their time in Washington.

In one of the instant messages, Foley is quoted as saying, "I would drive a few miles for a hot stud like you."

Answering detailed questions from reporters on the case for the first time, Hastert stressed that until last week Republican leaders only knew of one inappropriate e-mail exchange, which Hastert characterized as "overly friendly" but not explicitly sexual.

In that exchange, Foley requested a picture of a 16-year-old boy and asked him what he would like for his birthday. The former page forwarded it to a congressional staff member in September 2005, describing it 13 times as "sick" and saying, "This freaks me out."

The congressional staffer's office informed a Hastert aide shortly afterward, and the speaker's office referred the matter to Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican who chairs the House Page Board. Shimkus asked Foley to cease communication with the teenager.

Hastert said he had no recollection of being personally informed of the e-mails before the ABC News report.

But the speaker did not dispute claims by National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds of New York that he had spoken with Hastert about the e-mails last spring.

If so, Hastert said, "I just don't recall or remember that."

Hastert said he believed Shimkus acted in accordance with the wishes of the page's parents in handling the matter quietly without involving either the House ethics committee or other members of the House Page Board.

Shimkus defended his choice to handle the matter privately with Foley and then-House Clerk Jeff Trandahl, also a Page Board member, without informing other members of the board or the ethics committee.

"It didn't raise to the level of bringing in the other members and saying help me confront Mark Foley," Shimkus said in a phone interview last night.

Shimkus and Trandahl met privately with Foley and his chief of staff last fall to ask him to cease interaction with House pages. Shimkus said he acted based on the text of the e-mails and because the messages concerned the page and his parents.

"We told him to stay away from pages. Those were pretty much our exact words," Shimkus said. "He was in essence aghast that we would accuse him of having a relationship that was more than a friendship or mentor relationship.

"There was no indication that our intervention was not in fact successful. All we know is we didn't get any reports. These pages are monitored 24/7."

Responding to the scandal, the editorial board of The Washington Times called for Hastert to step down.

"House Speaker Dennis Hastert must do the only right thing, and resign his speakership at once," said the lead editorial posted last night on the newspaper's Web site.

Conservative activist Bay Buchanan, sister of former GOP presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, blasted the Republican leaders' response.

"I know one thing, that e-mail they call an overly friendly e-mail, that had predator stamped all over it," she said on CNN. "They had an obligation that same day to investigate him further."

Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons write for the Chicago Tribune.

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