By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's chief of staff confronted then-Rep. Mark Foley about his inappropriate social contact with male pages well before the speaker said aides in his office took any action, a current congressional staff member with personal knowledge of Foley and his behavior with pages said yesterday.
The staff member said Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, met with the Florida Republican at the Capitol to discuss complaints about Foley's behavior toward pages. The alleged meeting occurred long before Hastert says aides in his office dispatched Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.) and the clerk of the House in November 2005 to confront Foley about troubling e-mails he had sent to a Louisiana boy.
The staff member's account buttresses the position of Foley's onetime chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, who said earlier this week that he had appealed to Palmer in 2003 or earlier to intervene, after Fordham's own efforts to stop Foley's behavior had failed. Fordham said Foley and Palmer, one of the most powerful figures in the House of Representatives, met within days to discuss the allegations.
Palmer said this week that the meeting Fordham described "did not happen." Timothy J. Heaphy, Fordham's attorney, said yesterday that Fordham is prepared to testify under oath that he had arranged the meeting and that both Foley and Palmer told him the meeting had taken place. Fordham spent more than three hours with the FBI on Thursday, and Heaphy said that on Friday he contacted the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to offer his client's cooperation.
"We are not preparing to cooperate. We are affirmatively seeking to," Heaphy said.
Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean declined to directly comment on the second House staff member's assertion, saying that it is a matter for a House ethics committee investigation. "The Standards Committee has asked that no one discuss this matter because of its ongoing investigation," Bonjean said.
The emergence of a second congressional staffer describing such a meeting came on a day that Hastert (R-Ill.) was working to solidify his hold on the speakership. Prominent Republicans, including President Bush, have defended Hastert, saying he should not step down, but the criticism continues to flow.
New Jersey's Thomas H. Kean Jr., whose candidacy offers the GOP its most promising hope to take a Senate seat from a Democrat in November, called for Hastert's resignation yesterday, as did the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times. Democratic House candidate Patty Wetterling of Minnesota, a child-safety advocate and the first to air a television commercial about the Foley scandal, will deliver the national Democratic response to Bush's weekly radio address today.
Hastert maintains that he knew nothing of Foley's actions until last week, when the story first broke and Foley resigned. His stance contradicts that of House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), both of whom said they had informed Hastert this spring.
Palmer has resolutely said he had no earlier meeting with Foley, and other leadership aides have questioned the truthfulness of Fordham. Fordham quit his job as Reynolds's chief of staff last week after acknowledging that he had tried to persuade ABC News not to publish the salacious instant-message exchanges between Foley and two former pages.
Hastert's office contends that the first confrontation with Foley occurred in November 2005, when Shimkus, the head of the House Page Board, and then-House Clerk Jeff Trandahl took Foley aside to discuss what they termed "over-friendly" e-mails that Foley had sent to a Louisiana boy. Fordham's account not only pushed the matter back at least two years but also indicated that alarms over Foley's behavior had gone well beyond bland e-mails.
Sources close to Fordham say Trandahl repeatedly urged the longtime aide and close family friend to confront Foley about his inappropriate advances on pages. Each time, Foley pledged to no longer socialize with the teenagers, but, weeks later, Trandahl would again alert Fordham about more contacts. Out of frustration, the sources said, Fordham contacted Palmer, hoping that an intervention from such a powerful figure in the House would persuade Foley to stop.
Now, a second House aide familiar with Foley and his actions told The Washington Post yesterday that "Scott Palmer had spoken to Foley prior to November 2005." The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is now the subject of a criminal investigation and the House ethics committee inquiry.
Two law enforcement officials said yesterday that the FBI had not yet determined whether a crime had occurred in the Foley case. Justice Department and FBI officials have cautioned that cases involving the enticement of minors are notoriously difficult to prosecute.
On Wednesday night, Palmer was described as highly emotional while aides sifted through e-mails and files to determine whether he had ever spoken to Fordham. Several people who spoke with Palmer said the chief of staff was emphatic in denying that he knew anything about Foley's questionable contacts with young male pages.
Palmer, who shares a townhouse with Hastert when they are in town, is more powerful than all but a few House members. Members know that he speaks for Hastert.
The divergent accounts have highlighted the holes in the public's understanding of Foley's undoing. And they are sure to ratchet up the pressure on Trandahl to come forward with his knowledge of events. As House clerk between January 1999 and November 2005, Trandahl had direct control over the page program.
Pages apparently saw Trandahl as a strict disciplinarian. In one instant-message exchange obtained by The Post, a former page, on his way to his first annual reunion in Washington, told Foley in January 2003 that "everyone is going to be pretty wasted a lot of the time in dc."
He then added, "well we dont have the [expletive] clerk to fire us anymore. . . . we didnt like trandahl that much . . . he isnt a nice guy . . . and he gets really scarey when he is mad."
Trandahl's departure came within days of his confrontation with Foley over e-mails that the congressman had sent a former page. House aides say the circumstances of Trandahl's exit were oddly quiet. The departure of a staff member of long standing, especially one as important as the House clerk, is usually marked with considerable fanfare, said Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. Debate is suspended in mid-afternoon to accommodate a stream of testimonials from lawmakers.
Trandahl's departure was marked by a one-minute salute from Shimkus and a brief insert into the Congressional Record.
"My one-hour Special Order changed to a five-minute Special Order, now to a one-minute," Shimkus said. "I just want to say thank you for the work you have done."
Lilly said: "He seemed to suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke."
Trandahl, now the executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, has not returned repeated phone calls and e-mails.
Congressional aides point to another factor that links Trandahl to the Foley matter. A member of the board of the national gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, Trandahl is openly homosexual and personally close to the now-disgraced former lawmaker, who announced through his lawyer this week that he is gay.
Staff writers Jim VandeHei, Charles Babington, Dan Eggen and Allan Lengel contributed to this report.