Correction to This Article
An Oct. 1 article about former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.) incorrectly said that Adam Walsh was 10 years old when he was kidnapped and killed in 1981. He was 6.

Foley Built Career as Protector of Children

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

The Republican congressman who resigned Friday following the discovery of sexually explicit Internet messages he sent to teenage boys was a gregarious and charismatic lawmaker who built his political career in large measure on legislative proposals meant to halt the sexual predation of children and others.

Beginning with his 1993 sponsorship of a measure in the Florida state legislature to seize the cars of men who solicited prostitutes, former restaurant owner and real estate agent Mark Foley repeatedly attracted a flattering political spotlight by inveighing against those involved in sexual crimes and presenting himself as a protector of exploited children.

A well-liked member of the class of conservatives elected to Congress in 1994, Foley was until two days ago a deputy whip for the House Republicans and a co-chairman of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus. A Web site for the bipartisan group states that it was formed to "create a voice within Congress" on that issue and to operate a hotline for tips about "online child sexual exploitation" that could be passed to law enforcement agencies.

At a White House Rose Garden ceremony on July 27, President Bush hailed Foley and some other House and Senate lawmakers as members of a "SWAT team for kids." Bush spoke while signing into law a broad child protection measure that included a Foley-sponsored provision requiring sex offenders to register in every state where they live, work or attend school.

Foley's abrupt exit from Capitol Hill on Friday, shortly after ABC News journalists confronted him with excerpts of his Internet messages to male youths, stunned his congressional staff. They had dismissed an ABC report earlier last week about e-mails Foley, 52, sent to an underage, male House page as an exaggerated report stemming from an innocent attempt to be friendly.

Foley was not the target of any official investigation before his resignation, and he said in a three-sentence letter on Friday that "I am deeply sorry and I apologize for letting down my family and the people of Florida."

"No one saw the extent of this," said a former aide who said he has been in contact with Foley's congressional staff members since the resignation and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "You do that kind of stuff in the shadows."

Born in Boston into a devout Catholic family, Foley moved to south-central Florida and dropped out of a community college at age 20 to open with his mother a restaurant called Lettuce Patch, according to the Almanac of American Politics and CQ's Politics in America. He entered politics three years later as a commissioner for Lake Worth, a coastal town south of wealthy Palm Beach, starting as Democrat but switching parties in the 1980s.

The political cause of exploited children has long been a Republican favorite, and several of his staff members had strong feelings about its importance, according to several sources familiar with Foley's work. They said he saw the topic as a platform for attracting national attention and winning frequent appearances on cable talk shows, where he described sex offenders as "animals" who will persist "unless stopped."

"He loved the attention," a former aide said.

Foley recalled earlier this month that "I was in my mid-twenties" when Adam Walsh, 10, was kidnapped from his home in a nearby Florida community, assaulted, and killed in 1981, a crime that attracted national attention. "I remember that the case startled me. . . . It described the end of innocence for South Florida."

In 1998, he sponsored legislation allowing the Boy Scouts and other volunteer groups to get access to an FBI criminal database so they could weed out child predators. In 2003, he pressed Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) to investigate a nudist camp for teenagers, noting that "I have been fighting for years to eliminate both child pornography and so-called exploitive child modeling Web sites."

During the congressional debate in 1998 over President Bill Clinton's affair with a White House intern, Foley called Clinton's actions vile and told the St. Petersburg Times that "it's more sad than anything else, to see someone with such potential throw it all down the drain because of a sexual addiction."

While campaigning for a Senate nomination in 2003, Foley, who is single, was asked whether he was gay, and deflected the question as a matter of personal privacy before dropping out of the race.

Legislating, he told National Public Radio on June 29, "is not necessarily just trying to brand people or create a scarlet letter or subject them to unnecessary ridicule, but it's really to set a bar and a standard by which they then decide, 'I better get help professionally,' 'I better go and see how I can deal with this problem,' or, 'I should absolutely avoid contact with young people in order to ensure I don't fall into this very serious problem.' "

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