Hastert's Top Aide Testifies in Foley Case

Sally Vastola, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is accompanied by her attorney, Robert Kelner, after testifying to the House ethics subcommittee.
Sally Vastola, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is accompanied by her attorney, Robert Kelner, after testifying to the House ethics subcommittee. (By Chris Greenberg -- Bloomberg News)
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The congressional investigation of the Mark Foley page scandal reached into the House's highest office yesterday, as the chief of staff to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) spent more than six hours testifying to a House ethics subcommittee.

Scott Palmer, Hastert's top aide for nearly two decades, is central to the inquiry: A key witness has said he told Palmer a few years ago that Foley was showing inappropriate interest in teenagers working as House pages. Foley (R-Fla.) resigned his seat Sept. 29 after ABC News confronted him with sexually graphic electronic messages he had exchanged with former pages.

Palmer, 55, has said the account told by Kirk Fordham, who was Foley's chief of staff, "did not happen."

Last night, as Palmer and his attorney, Scott Fredericksen, left the office of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, Fredericksen said his client's testimony was "consistent with the position he's taken all along."

The day after Foley's abrupt resignation, Hastert's office issued a statement indicating that some aides there knew of warnings about Foley but did not share them with Palmer or the speaker.

The statement said that two high-ranking Hastert aides -- chief counsel Ted Van Der Meid and deputy chief of staff Mike Stokke -- learned last year of ambiguous e-mails that Foley had sent to a teenage boy in Louisiana, alarming the youth and his parents. The statement said the two aides, who have not testified before the ethics panel, did not tell Hastert or Palmer.

Fordham, who met with the ethics subcommittee on Oct. 12, has said he went to Palmer with a different concern involving Foley and pages. Repeatedly unable to dissuade Foley from showing inordinate attention to pages, Fordham said, he appealed to Palmer to use his substantial influence to change the Florida lawmaker's behavior. Fordham said Palmer later told him that he had spoken with Foley about the problem and informed Hastert.

Palmer, in a brief statement earlier this month, disputed Fordham's account. He has made no public comments since.

The Foley scandal has hampered Republicans' efforts to focus the Nov. 7 congressional elections on certain issues. Two top House Republicans -- Majority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.) -- have said they spoke briefly with Hastert about the Louisiana e-mails earlier this year. Hastert says he does not recall such conversations.

The bipartisan ethics subcommittee spent yesterday morning questioning Sally Vastola, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee and a longtime top aide to Reynolds. Reynolds, who chairs the NRCC and faces a tough reelection battle in Upstate New York, is expected to meet with the subcommittee today.

Yesterday's meeting suggests the four-person ethics panel may be nearing the end of its investigation, because only a handful of members and staffers with known links to the Foley matter have yet to be interviewed. Hastert, who was campaigning yesterday for a Republican House candidate in Johnson City, Tenn., said that he plans to testify before the subcommittee this week.

Republicans worry that an ethics committee finding that criticizes Hastert before Nov. 7 could further dampen GOP spirits and voter turnout. While the panel could release some type of preliminary finding, congressional insiders say, it is highly unlikely that the four subcommittee members could consult with the two other members of the full committee and then, with its staff, finish researching, writing and editing a full report before Election Day.

The FBI is conducting a separate investigation into whether Foley committed a crime. The House ethics committee no longer has jurisdiction over Foley, who reportedly is in a Florida alcohol-treatment center.

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