Hastert Aides Interest Ethics Panel
Thursday, October 12, 2006
With House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert denying personal knowledge of former representative Mark Foley's activities, investigators for the House ethics committee are bearing down on three senior members of Hastert's staff to determine when they learned of Foley's actions and whether they passed on their knowledge to the speaker.
The three -- chief of staff Scott Palmer, deputy chief of staff Mike Stokke and counsel Ted Van Der Meid -- have formed a palace guard around Hastert (R-Ill.) for years, attaining great degrees of power and unusual autonomy to deal with matters of politics, policy and House operations. They are also remarkably close. Palmer and Stokke have been with Hastert for decades. They live together in a Capitol Hill townhouse and commute back to Illinois on weekends.
It is that relationship that has made investigators so interested in their knowledge of Foley's contacts with teenage male congressional pages, especially allegations that his chief of staff personally appealed to Palmer in 2003 to confront the Florida Republican. Foley resigned Sept. 29 when news reports indicated he had sent electronic messages to a former page.
"It would be very hard to believe if Palmer knew that kind of detail, he wouldn't have acted upon it, and it's hard to imagine Scott Palmer would have spared the speaker that knowledge," said one former Republican leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his lobbying contacts.
Within Hastert's operation, some staff members appear to point accusingly at Van Der Meid, who is in charge of ethics matters and is widely believed to have steered Hastert wrong before.
Van Der Meid, a former chief Republican counsel for the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, helped engineer the failed effort to change GOP ethics rules to allow an indicted lawmaker to remain in the leadership. The power play was designed to keep then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) at his post, but it backfired spectacularly, embarrassing many Republicans and leaving a blemish on Hastert's record.
One House leadership aide said Van Der Meid lacks the personal connections with the speaker that Palmer and Stokke have, making him the most vulnerable of the three.
The staff issue will be front and center today, as the ethics committee takes the testimony of Kirk Fordham, Foley's former chief of staff, who is to testify that in 2003 he alerted Palmer to Foley's behavior. A source with knowledge of the events said Fordham will detail repeated efforts by then-House Clerk Jeff Trandahl to raise alarms about Foley's interest in young pages, and Fordham's own confrontations with Foley.
As early as 2000, Trandahl periodically called Fordham to say Foley was spending too much time with pages, the source said, and Fordham would have to "pull him back a little." In brief, awkward conversations, the source said, Fordham would tell Foley: "I just got a call from Jeff Trandahl. And Mark, you just need to be conscious of appearances. Everyone knows you're gay. You're being held to higher standards than everyone else. They see the stereotype -- a gay man going after kids."
In 2003, Trandahl placed another call to Fordham, according to the source. But this time, it was because Foley was seen drunk outside the pages' dormitory after the 10 p.m. curfew, trying to get in. Exasperated, Fordham reputedly told Trandahl, "I don't know if my saying something [to Foley] would make any difference."
Both Fordham and Trandahl decided that Fordham should call Palmer, according to the source. In a phone call with Palmer, Fordham expressed his concern about Foley's "over-friendliness" to pages, although Fordham did not specifically mention that Foley was seen outside the pages' dorm. Palmer said he would talk to Foley about it; two days later, Fordham checked in with Palmer. Palmer said that he spoke with Foley and that he told the speaker about it, the source said.
Palmer has said: "What Kirk Fordham said did not happen."