WASHINGTON -- The House Ethics Committee is ramping up its investigation into a sex scandal that has roiled the Republican-controlled Congress, with the first witnesses coming to an otherwise quiet Capitol to testify this week behind closed doors on what they knew, and when, about ex-Rep. Mark Foley's contacts with male pages.
In what is shaping up as a classic "he said/he said," Kirk Fordham, a former Foley aide, is expected to testify that he warned House Speaker Dennis Hastert's office in 2003 or earlier about the former Florida Republican's inappropriate interest in teenage pages.
Officials in Hastert's office have said they learned about Foley's advances only last fall, when a Louisiana congressman alerted the office to a series of e-mails Foley sent to a former page. Hastert has maintained that his aides then told officials in charge of the page program, who in turn told Foley to cease contact with the boy.
"All eyes will be on Hastert, and the basic point of the interviews with staff and GOP leaders will be to find out when the speaker had serious indications something was wrong with Foley," said Julian Zelizer, a specialist in congressional history at Boston University.
Hastert's attorney, J. Randolph Evans, said, "We're going to be fully cooperative."
Also yesterday, it became clear that the Foley scandal was sparking political concerns at the highest levels of the White House, with strategist Karl Rove conceding in a private briefing that the matter "complicates things" for some Republican candidates who have been linked to the scandal.
Fordham's attorney, Tim Heaphy, said yesterday that he expects the committee investigation to focus "less on what Congressman Foley did and more on who knew what when."
This week's questioning of witnesses and scrutiny of records comes as the committee broadens its probe to determine whether any other House members have had inappropriate contact with 16- and 17-year-old congressional pages.
Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican, and the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Howard L. Berman L. of California, asked all House members to contact current and former pages sponsored by their offices to determine "whether any of those individuals had any inappropriate communications or interactions with former Representative Foley or any other member of the House."
The scandal has become a campaign issue in the battle for control of Congress. The committee has vowed to act swiftly, but it is unclear whether it will complete its work before the Nov. 7 elections.
The panel conducting the investigation, two Democrats and two Republicans, is trying to determine whether any House members or staff violated House rules. The committee has no power to discipline Foley, who has resigned from Congress. A separate criminal investigation is being conducted by the FBI.
The committee is expected to interview Hastert and members of his staff, including Scott Palmer, whom Fordham has said he spoke to in 2002 or 2003. Hastert's chief political adviser Mike Stokke and his senior counsel Ted Van Der Meid - both of whom helped to field the complaint last year, according to an account prepared by the speaker's office - might be called as well.
So too could a host of other lawmakers and staff, and perhaps Foley and former pages. Other possible witnesses include:
Former House Clerk Jeff Trandahl, who oversaw the page program and allegedly was called on to talk to Foley after the speaker's office received a complaint last year;
Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican who is chairman of the board that oversees the page program, who allegedly accompanied Trandahl to talk to Foley;
Rep. Rodney Alexander, a Louisiana Republican who sponsored the page who received e-mails from Foley last year;
Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican, whom The Washington Post reported confronted Foley as early as 2000 about his messages to pages;
Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, a New York Republican, chairman of the Republican National Congressional Committee, who began employing Fordham as his chief of staff last year.
The panel has prepared about four dozen subpoenas for documents and testimony. Witnesses will testify under oath.
Richard Simon and Noam N. Levey write for the Los Angeles Times.