By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Now, a rapidly escalating ethics investigation is trying to determine who is right. Peggy Sampson, a former Capitol Police officer who has supervised Republican pages since 1986, went before the committee yesterday. According to several former pages, Sampson was the adult who warned them to stay away from Foley, and she may be able to confirm his alleged visit to the pages' dormitory.
A current staff member who has corroborated Palmer's meeting with Foley has also offered to cooperate with investigators. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who said he told Hastert about the Foley matter this spring, yesterday afternoon received an invitation to testify and "looks forward to cooperating fully," said spokesman Kevin Smith.
Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.) and his chief of staff are to testify next week, presumably about e-mails Alexander's staff received from a former page. The 2005 e-mails from Foley, which asked the youth for a picture and what he wanted for his birthday, came to the attention of Stokke and Van Der Meid that fall, the speaker's office said.
For an institution replete with glory seekers, Hastert's inner circle has been virtually invisible to the outside world. Palmer has known Hastert for 28 years and worked on his first political campaign; he is the speaker's gatekeeper, a policy expert who swoops into negotiations to untie knots and seal deals.
Stokke, an old Illinois political hand, is tasked with getting GOP lawmakers what they need for their faltering campaigns, such as an appearance by Hastert, a fundraiser or vital legislation.
Van Der Meid is the relative newcomer -- he came to the speaker's office after guiding the ethics committee's probe of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Known by some as the mayor of the House, Van Der Meid has the institutional knowledge of the chamber's customs. He handles legal matters but has been known to intervene angrily on a shade of carpet or which paintings to hang on the Capitol's walls.
The speaker's own timeline points to Van Der Meid and Stokke as central players in the Foley matter. After Alexander's staff alerted a low-level Hastert aide in the fall of 2005, Stokke directed the information to Van Der Meid. Later that day, Stokke met with Alexander's chief of staff, then summoned Trandahl to the speaker's office. Later, Trandahl informed Van Der Meid that action had been taken to stop Foley's communications with the Louisiana youth.
A senior GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said it made little sense to have a political hand such as Stokke handle the Foley matter, a delicate issue involving personnel questions and possible legal violations.
"Did they make an affirmative decision to have the political guy work on this?" the GOP staffer asked. "It clearly was a bad damn idea."
Nowhere in the speaker's timeline is Palmer mentioned. But former leadership aides question how a powerful chief of staff could have been left out of such complicated deliberations and how they would have been kept from Hastert.
The latter point is especially true if Foley's behavior came to Palmer's attention in 2003, one former aide said. In recent months, as the House has become consumed in scandal and political trouble, Hastert has been less engaged in the day-to-day activities of the House, he said. That was not true in 2003, however, the former aide added.
Staff writers Jim VandeHei, Jose Antonio Vargas and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.