By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 2006
The House ethics committee launched a wide-ranging investigation into Congress's handling of information about a Florida lawmaker and teenage pages yesterday, as Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) vowed to keep his job, saying, "I haven't done anything wrong."
The ethics panel approved nearly four dozen subpoenas for documents and testimony from House members, officers and aides. Its leaders said they plan to complete the inquiry in a matter of weeks, but not necessarily before the Nov. 7 congressional elections.
"Our investigation will go wherever the evidence leads us," Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) told reporters at the Capitol. The committee is evenly divided between the two parties, and Hastings and Rep. Howard L. Berman (Calif.), the top Democrat, promised to conduct an impartial investigation into the House's handling of warnings about the conduct of then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.).
The committee's inquiry will proceed in tandem with investigations by the FBI and Florida officials. Unlike those agencies, the ethics committee has no jurisdiction over Foley, who resigned last week as ABC News was publishing sexually graphic electronic messages between him and teenage former congressional pages. Hastings said his committee will focus on the "conduct of House members, officers and staff related to information concerning improper conduct involving members and current and former pages."
Democrats and some Republicans have accused Hastert and his leadership team of brushing off early indications of a problem -- including what they called an "over-friendly" e-mail that Foley sent to a Louisiana boy in 2005 -- that might have led investigators to find the explicit instant-message exchanges that had occurred in previous years. Two high-ranking House Republicans have said they told Hastert about that e-mail, and another lawmaker says he told Hastert's staff.
Kirk Fordham, Foley's former chief of staff, said this week that he repeatedly alerted Hastert's staff in 2003 to complaints that the Florida lawmaker was showing inappropriate interest in male pages, who are high-schoolers spending a semester or two working for Congress. The FBI spent more than three hours yesterday interviewing Fordham.
Some Republicans said they are most concerned about Fordham's assertions. Scott Palmer, the speaker's top aide, has denied the allegations and spent much of Wednesday night rummaging through old e-mails and files to determine whether he ever corresponded with Fordham, a source close to Hastert said. Palmer, who was described as very emotional, told Hastert that Fordham's assertions are false, the source said.
Hastert's office has been on edge. Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Stokke, who handles politics for the speaker, has offered to resign, two sources close to Hastert said, and several aides have expressed frustration that Ted Van Der Meid, the top counsel in the office, did not do a better job monitoring the Foley situation. Hastert did not accept Stokke's resignation offer, the source said.
Hastert, addressing reporters in Batavia, Ill., reasserted that he knew nothing of complaints about Foley's behavior until the day the Floridian resigned last week. The speaker rejected calls for his resignation by a handful of conservative groups, saying: "I haven't done anything wrong, obviously. And we need to come back." At the same time, he said, "We're taking responsibility, because ultimately, as someone has said in Washington before, the buck stops here."
Hastert suggested that Democrats may have known about the lewd instant messages and leaked them for partisan advantage, but he said he had no evidence.
Hastert had hoped to announce the bipartisan appointment of former FBI director Louis J. Freeh to look into ways to improve the page program, in which teenagers live in a Capitol Hill dorm and attend a special school. But when he called Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) early in the afternoon, she declined to go along with the plan.
Pelosi saw the Freeh proposal as a ploy to burnish the GOP's image, aides said. She told the speaker that investigators should examine whether existing rules and procedures were followed before the House considers new rules, the aides said.
Rather than presenting Freeh as an appointee backed only by Republicans, Hastert delayed his remarks and dropped the idea.
At the ethics committee's news conference, Hastings said he thinks Hastert "has done an excellent job" as speaker but added that as committee chairman he would be able to render impartial judgments on the Foley affair.
The committee has a stormy history, in part because Hastert replaced key members in early 2005 as the panel was investigating then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). The committee was essentially paralyzed, but public furor over the Foley scandal forced it into action on a high-profile issue.
The four-person subcommittee handling the Foley matter consists of Hastings, Berman, Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) and Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio). Berman said that "we are dealing with a fundamental institutional issue" concerning the handling of information and warnings about Foley.
As he had done before, Hastert described the Foley chronology yesterday in ways that some Republican colleagues challenge. "Could the Page Board have handled it better?" he said. "In retrospect, probably, yes."
But only two of the Page Board's six members -- three lawmakers and three staffers -- knew anything about the e-mail to the Louisiana boy. Among those kept in the dark were Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.). They have said they should have been brought into the decision-making process earlier this year.
Hastert was feistier in a Chicago Tribune interview published yesterday. "The people who want to see this thing blow up," he said, "are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros," a major contributor to liberal causes. "I saw Bill Clinton's adviser Richard Morris was saying these guys knew about this all along."
Morris is a former Clinton consultant who was been sharply at odds with the former president for years. Hastert offered no proof for his assertions, and Democrats called them absurd and laughable.
High-ranking House Republicans, after challenging Hastert's handling of the Foley matter in recent days, issued statements of support yesterday.
President Bush called Hastert last night to offer his support. "He's saying at this point that the speaker should not resign," spokesman Tony Snow said.
Meanwhile yesterday, a 26-year-old Atlanta man says Foley began sending him sexually suggestive messages and invited him to his Washington home after he served as a congressional page nine years ago. Tyson Vivyan said Foley began sending him online instant messages a month or two after his nine-month stint as a page ended in June 1997. Foley entered Congress in January 1995.
Vivyan's account appears to show the earliest exchange of suggestive messages reported so far between Foley and former pages. Vivyan said he played along at first, thinking it was someone he knew. After weeks of peppering the anonymous message sender with questions, he said he figured out who it was and refused to engage in the sexual banter that Foley tried to instigate.
"I had absolutely no sexual interest in him. He was a man twice my age," said Vivyan, who added: "I don't call my self gay, I don't call myself straight."
Vivyan, who is divorced, said he found the congressman's behavior "morally reprehensible" but tried to maintain a platonic professional relationship in which they talked about legislation and "votes on the Hill."
He said that in 1999 Foley invited him and another former page over to his home for pizza. Vivyan said they went and "everything was completely platonic and nonsexual."
Also yesterday, ABC News reported that three more former congressional pages have come forward to reveal what they call "sexual approaches" over the Internet from Foley. The pages served in the classes of 1998, 2000 and 2002, ABC said, and they do not want their names used.
Staff writers Peter Baker, Jim VandeHei, Jonathan Weisman and Allan Lengel contributed to this report.