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The Foley Fallout

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Soon-to-be-speaker Nancy Pelosi is fond of mentioning that she's the mother of five, grandmother of six. The California Democrat should keep that in mind as she reviews the House ethics committee's report on former representative Mark Foley and considers proposals for tougher ethics enforcement.

Pelosi should ask herself: What would she think if the pages whom Foley pursued with his smarmy e-mails and even worse instant messages were her own children?

Would she be satisfied with the ethics committee's conclusion that no House rules were broken by any of the lawmakers or staffers who had ample warning of Foley's problem and failed to do anywhere near enough to stop him? As a parent, does she think that their actions complied with the rule requiring members and staff to conduct themselves "at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives?"

Would a company with a problem like this in its midst conclude an investigation without a single minor disciplinary action against any individual? Would an investigator with more independence have come to the same no-fault conclusion?

It's hard to see how.

The 89-page report by a special investigative subcommittee of the ethics panel is an oddly schizophrenic document. The facts it lays out and analyzes present a disturbing, even repellent, picture of an institution where political considerations took precedence over the welfare of children. The few people who tried to stop Foley "encountered obstacles in the chain of command that limited their effectiveness," the report says. Most just tried to toss away the hot potato as quickly as possible.

"In all, a pattern of conduct was exhibited among many individuals to remain willfully ignorant of the potential consequences of former Representative Foley's conduct with respect to House pages," it concludes.

Then it absolves any particular individual of any actual rule violation.

One argument against assessing individual culpability is that the report speaks for itself and will produce its own consequences, in the political arena, for those whose behavior fell short. We'll see. But in my experience, the specific facts fade quickly from the public's memory, and the exculpatory bottom line--no violation of House rules -- remains.

In fact, this self-serving spin is already underway. "I am glad the committee made clear that there was no violation of any House rules by any Member or staff," Speaker J. Dennis Hastert proclaimed in a statement. This from a man who, the evidence shows, was warned by at least two people -- Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) -- and most likely a third, his chief of staff, Scott Palmer, about Foley's conduct.

Boehner testified that, when he raised the subject of Foley's inappropriate e-mails with Hastert, the speaker "said that the matter 'has been taken care of.' " The speaker said he doesn't remember any of these conversations.

Another argument is that the wrongdoing here involved errors of omission -- failures to act to stop the chief offender, Foley himself. This lack of attentiveness, so this argument goes, looks a lot worse in hindsight, with Foley's sexually explicit instant messages revealed.

But anyone paying responsible attention to Foley's behavior -- calling a young male intern in another congressional office; using frequent-flier miles to fly a former page up to visit him; turning up outside the page dormitory; the list goes creepily on -- couldn't have been surprised that he crossed so far over the line.

After all, the House clerk confronted Foley directly 10 times about his inappropriate attention to pages; Foley's chief of staff went to Palmer, Hastert's chief of staff, with a "plea" to help him deal with the "chronic problem with my boss's attention to pages and young staffers." Given all this, the lackadaisical, we-may-have-a-political-problem (or opportunity, in the Democrats' case) response when the matter of Foley's "overly friendly" e-mails came up amounts to gross negligence on the part of at least some of those involved.

Ironically, the committee's performance could be a blessing in disguise for those who believe -- as I do -- that the ethics process ought to be strengthened with some kind of independent investigative arm. As the 110th Congress takes up the ethics mess that the 109th failed to fix, the question of adding an independent ethics enforcement process is going to be front and center.

The ethics committee's performance on the Foley matter reinforces the need for such a change -- and for the new speaker to use her "mother-of-five" voice, loudly and firmly, to get it done.

marcusr@washpost.com


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