By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 28, 2006
The House ethics committee has all but wrapped up the investigative phase of its probe into the actions of former representative Mark Foley, informing key witnesses that they will not be summoned back for more questioning, lawyers in the case said yesterday.
But those lawyers indicated that the committee is unlikely to release its report on the Florida Republican -- or even an interim memo -- before the Nov. 7 elections.
The quick pace of the investigation had raised hopes among some Democrats that the committee could release its findings in the coming days, fulfilling a pledge from the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Howard L. Berman (Calif.), that the probe would be wrapped up in "weeks, not months."
The political shock of Foley's sexually explicit instant-message exchanges with former House pages has faded, but questions remain about what senior House GOP leaders knew of Foley's behavior and when they knew it. A committee report could have resurrected Democratic charges of a coverup, some Democrats hoped.
But with many hours of testimony to transcribe into thousands of pages of evidence, it is unrealistic to expect that even an interim memo can be released next week, said Timothy J. Heaphy, the attorney for Foley's former chief of staff, Kirk Fordham.
The task of sifting through evidence and reaching conclusions appears to be at hand. Aides for the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics committee is formally known, told Heaphy that Fordham was free to leave the country yesterday on vacation. Lawyers close to the probe said another pivotal witness, former House clerk Jeff Trandahl, will not be called back for follow-up questions.
The committee has also taken testimony from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and his top staff; House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio); National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.); Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.), whose former page apparently first brought Foley's e-mails to the attention of the House leadership; Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.), who chairs the page board; and several other Republican aides.
The most glaring hole in the testimony is the apparent decision not to call Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), who was aware of inappropriate e-mails from Foley to a page as far back as 2000 and whose conduct with former pages has also drawn scrutiny. Korenna Cline, a Kolbe spokeswoman, said the ethics committee has had no contact with the congressman or his staff. Ethics committee staff members would not comment on the course of the investigation but gave no indication that all investigative matters were closed.
Still, the committee has generally garnered praise for the diligence its members have shown. This week's appearance by Hastert was expected to be short and perfunctory. Instead, Hastert remained behind closed doors for nearly three hours with the committee's staff and the four members conducting the Foley probe. Questioning of Hastert's chief counsel, Ted Van Der Meid, stretched on for more than six hours and ended past midnight. Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, spent a similarly grueling stretch with the committee.
One witness said questions dwelled on meetings between Republican leadership aides, Foley and Foley's staff, and Trandahl.
Outside the committee room, House Republicans, including Hastert, have repeatedly suggested that Democrats should also be scrutinized to determine whether they were aware of Foley's sexually explicit instant messages and leaked them to the news media. But those messages were revealed by former pages only after ABC News published inappropriate but not sexual e-mails, and the committee has not pursued the matter, the witness said.
The Republican members of the investigative panel -- committee Chairman Doc Hastings (Wash.) and Rep. Judy Biggert (Ill.) -- did not dwell on the origins of the e-mails or on the leaks. Likewise, the Democratic members, Berman and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (Ohio), did not press their party's charges that the Republicans covered up Foley's actions to protect his House seat.
"I did not get the sense that anyone was acting in a partisan way," Heaphy said, stressing that he could not divulge the specific questions asked. "They were pretty much acting as investigators. I was impressed at the level of preparation and insight they showed."
That is a far cry from the dysfunctional committee that has done virtually nothing since February 2005, when GOP leaders ousted the panel's independent-minded chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), and replaced him with Hastings, who is considered closer to the Republican leadership.
James Dyer, a former senior House Republican aide now with the lobbying firm Clark & Weinstock, said the Foley matter has shown Republican leaders that they need a strong, credible ethics committee that can take up internal scandals and show the public that House members take such matters seriously.
"If there is a silver lining in all this, it's the re-emergence of a strong ethics committee," Dyer said.
When the page scandal broke Sept. 29, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) called for the committee to deliver a preliminary report to the House within 10 days. That goal is long past, but Pelosi has not publicly pressured the committee to move faster.
"The ethics committee seems to be conducting its investigation rapidly," said Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider. "We'll see how the next phase goes."