By Charles Babington and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 30, 2006
Six-term Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) resigned yesterday amid reports that he had sent sexually explicit Internet messages to at least one underage male former page.
Foley, who was considered likely to win reelection this fall, said in a three-sentence letter of resignation: "I am deeply sorry and I apologize for letting down my family and the people of Florida I have had the privilege to represent."
The resignation rocked the Capitol, and especially Foley's GOP colleagues, as lawmakers were rushing to adjourn for at least six weeks. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told The Washington Post last night that he had learned this spring of inappropriate "contact" between Foley and a 16-year-old page. Boehner said he then told House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Boehner later contacted The Post and said he could not remember whether he talked to Hastert.
It was not immediately clear what actions Hastert took. His spokesman had said earlier that the speaker did not know of the sexually charged online exchanges between Foley and the boy.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took the House floor last night to demand an investigation into the Foley matter. But Boehner headed her off, calling on the House to refer the matter to the ethics committee, which the House promptly voted unanimously to do.
The news of Foley's resignation overshadowed an afternoon Republican ceremony hailing a military commissions bill, and it gave Democrats sudden hopes of winning the Palm Beach-based 16th District. Many lawmakers think Democrats are on the verge of winning control of the House in November, and an unexpected gain could prove crucial.
At the Capitol Hill signing ceremony for the commissions bill, a GOP campaign priority, reporters asked Hastert only about Foley. "He's done the right thing," Hastert replied. "I've asked John Shimkus [R-Ill.], who is head of the Page Board, to look into this issue regarding Congressman Foley. We want to make sure that all of our pages are safe and our page system is safe. None of us are happy about it."
ABC News reported yesterday that it had interviewed Foley, 52, about excerpts of instant messages provided by current and former pages under the age of 18. ABC reported that Foley, under the AOL Instant Messenger screen name Maf54, made repeated references to sexual acts and body parts. Foley's spokesman did not respond to a Washington Post request for comment on the ABC report.
Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.), who sponsored the page from his district, said he had learned of some of the online exchanges from a reporter some months ago and passed on the information to Rep. Thomas Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Republican campaign organization, the Associated Press reported. Alexander said he did not pursue the matter further because "his parents said they didn't want me to do anything."
Carl Forti, a spokesman for the GOP campaign organization, said Reynolds learned from Alexander that the parents did not want to pursue the matter, AP reported.
Shimkus said in a statement last night, "in late 2005, I was notified by the then Clerk of the House," that Alexander had told the Clerk "about an email exchange between Congressman Foley and a former House Page. I took immediate action to investigate the matter."
In the e-mail, "Foley asked about the former Page's well-being after Hurricane Katrina and requested a photograph," Shimkus said. He said Foley assured him it was an innocent exchange, but "nevertheless, we ordered Congressman Foley to cease all contact" with the boy and to respect all pages. "Only now have I learned that Congressman Foley was not honest about his conduct," Shimkus said.
The news emboldened Democrats that they could gain the 15 seats they need to regain the House majority they lost in 1994. The Florida district's Democratic nominee, Tim Mahoney, has been running a credible campaign, raising more than $700,000 and airing TV ads for nearly a month, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The committee said it is too late under Florida law to remove Foley's name as the GOP nominee on the Nov. 7 ballot, a circumstance that would greatly improve Mahoney's chances of being elected.
But Forti said lawyers hope they can replace Foley's name on the ballot. At a minimum, he said, party officials can designate an alternate candidate who would be credited with all votes cast for Foley on Nov. 7. "It's a very Republican seat," Forti said, adding that Republicans "can move forward" when they have a new candidate.
Florida GOP Chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan said in a statement that executives from each county in Foley's district "will meet to choose a replacement on the ballot." Possible candidates include state Rep. Joe Negron, she said. The decision, she said, is "very time-sensitive" because the replacement "would have the opportunity to get around the district and campaign in a very short amount of time."
Foley's resignation was startlingly sudden. He was a respected House member cruising toward a seventh term when ABC News reported Thursday that he had sent brief, chatty e-mails last year to a boy, then 16, who had been a House page. In them, Foley asked the boy's age and what he wanted for his birthday. He requested a picture of the boy and told him that he had just finished a long bike ride and was going to the gym. ABC reported that the boy forwarded the photo-request e-mail to an unidentified congressional staffer and wrote that the message was "sick sick sick sick sick."
Efforts by The Washington Post to reach the boy were unsuccessful. But he told the St. Petersburg Times last November: "I thought it was very inappropriate. After the one about the picture, I decided to stop e-mailing him back." The Times, which did not disclose the teenager's name, did not publish his comments until yesterday.
The e-mails were posted Friday on the Web site of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington after ABC News reported their existence. The liberal-leaning watchdog group asked the House ethics committee to investigate the exchange Foley had with the boy.
Foley, who is single, moved to Florida as a child and opened a restaurant in Lake Worth at age 20. He also sold real estate and moved quickly into politics. He was elected to Florida's House in 1990, to the state Senate in 1992 and to the U.S. House in 1994.
In Congress, Foley pushed bills to deport imprisoned illegal immigrants and to amend the Constitution so that children born in the United States are not automatically citizens. He also sought to increase the number of immigrants admitted as farmworkers. He obtained a Government Accountability Office report into irregularities at cemeteries and crematoriums, and he called for tougher regulation of funeral workers.
Foley chaired the House caucus on missing and exploited children and was credited with writing the sexual-predator provisions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, which Bush signed in July. A photo on the White House Web site shows Foley among those attending the signing ceremony.
In 2003, Foley faced questions about his sexual orientation as he prepared to run for Sen. Bob Graham's post. At a news conference in May of that year, he said he would not comment on rumors that he was gay. He later decided not to seek the Senate seat to care for his parents.
Congressional pages are teenagers who live in a Capitol Hill dorm and attend a special school while serving in the House and Senate. The program generally is trouble-free, but in July 1983 the House censured Reps. Daniel B. Crane (R-Ill.) and Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.) for sexual misconduct with House pages.
Research editor Lucy Shackelford and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.