By Jonathan Weisman and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 1, 2006
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was notified early this year of inappropriate e-mails from former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.) to a 16-year-old page, a top GOP House member said yesterday -- contradicting the speaker's assertions that he learned of concerns about Foley only last week.
Hastert did not dispute the claims of Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), and his office confirmed that some of Hastert's top aides knew last year that Foley had been ordered to cease contact with the boy and to treat all pages respectfully.
Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, became the second senior House Republican to say that Hastert has known of Foley's contacts for months, prompting Democratic attacks about the GOP leadership's inaction. Foley abruptly resigned his seat Friday.
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told The Washington Post on Friday that he had learned in late spring of inappropriate e-mails Foley sent to the page, a boy from Louisiana, and that he promptly told Hastert, who appeared to know already of the concerns. Hours later, Boehner contacted The Post to say he could not be sure he had spoken with Hastert.
Yesterday's developments revealed a rift at the highest echelons of House Republican ranks a month before the Nov. 7 elections, and they threatened to expand the scandal to a full-blown party dilemma.
Only after Reynolds's definitive statement did Hastert concede yesterday that he may have been notified of some of the questionable activities of Foley, 52, who had co-chaired the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus. Hastert said, however, that he knew nothing of the sexually explicit instant messages that became public Friday when ABC News and other news outlets reported them. The messages apparently were exchanged with youths other than the 16-year-old.
Hastert's aides learned in the fall of 2005 only of e-mail exchanges that House officials eventually deemed "over-friendly" with the Louisiana teenager, the speaker's office said yesterday in a lengthy statement. "While the Speaker does not explicitly recall this conversation" with Reynolds, the statement said, "he has no reason to dispute Congressman Reynolds's recollection that he reported to him on the problem and its resolution."
Boehner and Reynolds said their offices learned of the Foley e-mails months ago from Rep. Rodney Alexander (R), who sponsored the page from his northeastern-Louisiana district.
"Rodney Alexander brought to my attention the existence of the e-mails between Mark Foley and a former page of Mr. Alexander's," Reynolds said yesterday. "Despite the fact that I had not seen the e-mails in question, and Mr. Alexander told me that the parents didn't want the matter pursued, I told the speaker of the conversation Mr. Alexander had with me."
GOP leaders have said they referred the matter promptly to Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.), who heads a three-lawmaker panel that oversees the House page program.
Shimkus questioned Foley, but at that time, he had seen only suspiciously friendly e-mails, not the explicit instant messages revealed recently. In one e-mail to the former page, for example, Foley asked for a picture of him. The boy reportedly told an associate that he considered the request to be "sick," but Foley convinced Shimkus that the exchanges were innocent, Shimkus and Republican leaders said.
Republicans appeared to have kept the matter under wraps. Rep. Dale E. Kildee (Mich.), the only Democrat on the House Page Board, said yesterday: "I was never informed of the allegations about Mr. Foley's inappropriate communications with a House page, and I was never involved in any inquiry into this matter."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, questioned yesterday why Alexander had gone to the House Republicans' chief political operative, rather than to other party leaders. "That's to protect a member, not to protect a child," Emanuel said.
With his statement, Reynolds, who is locked in a difficult reelection campaign, signaled he was unwilling to take the fall alone amid partisan attacks that were becoming increasingly vituperative. The Democratic National Committee yesterday issued a statement asking "Why Did Tom Reynolds Cover Up Congressman's Sex Crimes?" It continued: "While the shocking [online] exchanges produced an immediate uproar that cost Congressman Foley his job, at least one member of the House Republican leadership had known about the situation for months and did nothing about it: . . . Reynolds."
Republican insiders said Reynolds spoke out because he was angry that Hastert appeared willing to let him take the blame for the party leadership's silence.
A House GOP leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said that Reynolds realizes he has taken a shot at his leader but that it is understandable.
"This is what happens when one member tries to throw another member under a bus," the aide said.
Last night, Hastert, Boehner and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in a statement that Foley's communications with former pages are "unacceptable and abhorrent," and that his resignation "must now be followed by the full weight of the criminal justice system." The statement did not suggest how that might happen, but added that the three have "asked for the creation of a toll-free telephone number for House pages, parents, grandparents and staff to confidentially report incidents of concern."
The House clerk's office "has taken possession of Congressman Foley's office, and Capitol police officers have been posted in front of his office around-the-clock" to preserve Foley's records and correspondence, said Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean.
Foley's actions have jeopardized a House seat that Republicans had considered safe this fall. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) headlined a fundraiser yesterday for the district's Democratic nominee, Tim Mahoney, whose race has rocketed to national prominence with Foley's resignation. Charlie Cook, editor of a nonpartisan newsletter that tracks congressional races, said that if Foley's name stays on the ballot, "it's going to be hard for Republicans to hold on to the seat." But a GOP loss might last only two years, he said, since the district typically votes Republican in presidential races.
The chronology released by Hastert's office begins in late 2005, after Alexander had alerted colleagues of Foley's e-mail exchanges with the former page, who had returned to Louisiana. Hastert aide Tim Kennedy "immediately discussed the matter with his supervisor, Mike Stokke, Speaker Hastert's Deputy Chief of Staff," the statement says. Also brought into the talks were Hastert's staff attorney, Ted Van Der Meid, and the House clerk.
The clerk and Shimkus "immediately met with Foley to discuss the matter," the chronology says, and they told Foley "to immediately cease any communication with the young man. . . . Mindful of the sensitivity to the parents' wishes to protect their child's privacy and believing that they had promptly reported what they knew to the proper authorities," it says, "Kennedy, Van Der Meid and Stokke did not discuss the matter with others in the Speaker's Office."
Republicans fear the scandal, coming in the wake of indictments of three GOP congressmen this year, might add to the public's unrest at the party's image and conduct, and some House members yesterday joined in the chorus of dismay and scorn.
"I don't think it will be just conservative voters that will shake their heads when they hear about this," said Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.).
"As the author of laws designed to protect children on the Internet, I was appalled at the recent revelations that a member of Congress engaged in reprehensible behavior toward young people connected to the congressional page program," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.). "Congress should thoroughly investigate this matter and, in cooperation with law enforcement authorities, support all proper legal action."
Rich Galen, a Republican political strategist, worried that voters might lump Foley's name with former representatives Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), all of whom were forced to resign or were indicted amid various scandals this year.
"This sense of entitlement that members of Congress can do anything to anyone or for anyone has got to end," Galen said.
Staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith and staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.