In the last week, Sammy Childers has woken up to the commotion of network camera crews entrenched on his front lawn. He has seen neighbors whispering and staring at his Capitol Hill townhouse as he leaves for work. The phone hasn't stopped ringing. And one night, bright TV lights were shone in the window. He was startled.
Childers is 16 years old. He arrived here from Oklahoma recently to become a congressional page under the patronage of Rep. James Jones (D-Okla.).
After one week on his new summer job, the news broke, Childers said, "about all this sex and drugs stuff." He called home.
"I called my parents right away because I knew they would hear about it and worry about me," he said Tuesday, sitting in the House speaker's lobby. "I wanted them to know that even though they were going to hear about all this, that it had nothing to do with me, that I was all right.
". . . And I got a letter from my Dad the other day," he said. "He told me he was still real proud of me . . ."
During the past two weeks, life in the marble hallways hasn't been all congressional pages had hoped it would be. There has been a sense of tension and suspicion among the pages ever since the Justice Department opened its investigations into alleged drug use or distribution and improper sexual conduct involving members of Congress and teen-age pages.
Many of the teen-agers are scared. At any one time there are about 100 pages, all between the ages of 14 and 17. The majority of those on the Hill now are summer pages who have never been away from home before. Unlike their year-round counterparts, who come to Washington from September until June, the summer pages will be here only one month. When the story broke, many were shocked when ABC's "Nightline" used an exaggerated drawing of a very large congressman grabbing a very small page by the shoulders.
The youngsters have been chased by camera crews across the Capitol grounds, followed home, been photographed and quoted. Pages have become the subject of dirty jokes circulating on the Hill. The families of many have been called by the press and the FBI. One year-round page was tracked down by reporters while he was playing golf with his father in Chicago. Some have been interrogated by the FBI.
So far, a critical witness in the investigation is a former page whose credibility has been questioned. Leroy Williams Jr., 18, of Arkansas, who claims to have engaged in homosexual relations with three members of Congress, has failed parts of an FBI lie-detector test. He repeatedly has been called a "liar" by his peers in the page system and a person with known "personal problems."
Compounding the problem is an FBI investigation about alleged drug trafficking on the Hill, reportedly involving some pages as couriers. On Tuesday, the House whisked through a resolution to expedite an investigation into the sex-drug charges to be coordinated with the Justice Department investigations.
Every fall teen-agers file into Washington, largely unsupervised, to attend the accredited Capitol Page School and work on the Hill during the school year. Like the summer pages, they live in apartments and rooming houses, and reports of wild parties, arrests for disorderly conduct, drinking and social drug use surface at times.
While page program officials concede that these things may be happening, they take issue with the recent--and more serious--allegations.
"Years later it's going to catch up to these kids," says James T. Molloy, doorkeeper of the House of Representatives, who is in charge of the House pages. "Some innocent kid is going to be in the paper speaking up for the system, but that's not what people will remember. They'll remember that his name was associated with the scandal. It's not right to expose kids to this. I have minors to protect."
Steve Kaufman, an 18-year-old from Delaware, was president of the 1982 graduating class of the Capitol Page School. Tuesday, wearing a black pin-striped suit, his page school ring, an American flag pin on his lapel and a congressional tie tack, he described himself as "patriotic" and "outraged" by the allegations. Kaufman says he doesn't believe Williams' allegations and says that they are making the program and the pages look bad.
"I've been teased a lot, and I've been hearing a lot of cute jokes from my friends," said Kaufman. "But I just tell them that I never looked at any congressman's legs while I was up here . . . They laugh with me, but I have to wonder what they're saying behind my back."
Kelly Carter is pretty shaken up this sticky summer morning. Hours earlier, two FBI agents showed up at the Capitol Hill town house she shares with one roommate to question her about Leroy Williams and sex and drugs on Capitol Hill. Her father, visiting from Corona, Calif., had waited in the next room.
"They kept saying, 'We're not trying to pressure you, but we could put you in front of a grand jury,' " says Carter, who at 17 is entering her second year at the Page School. "They kept saying, 'You're hiding something from us,' and I was telling them what I knew. I didn't know much."
Carter says she knows Leroy Williams and doesn't believe he is telling the truth about widespread homosexual activities on the Hill between members and pages. "I don't know what's going on, and I don't think Leroy does either," she says. Her eyes are big and brown and nervous. A side ponytail flops around, clasped hands show perfectly painted fingernails, legs are crossed at the ankles. Navy-blue skirt, navy-blue knee socks, navy blue penny loafers, crisp white blouse.
"This whole thing has been embarrassing, " she says. "It's almost humiliating."
Snags in the System
A page is a "gofer," a prestigious messenger paid $8,000 a year to run errands for the powerful. They come here with high hopes, and even higher political aspirations. The more-senior pages sit on the House or Senate floor, a privilege by the standards of any Hill aide. The younger, less-experienced pages are called "runners." They traipse endless miles through the monotonous tunnels connecting the office buildings with the Capitol.
Steve Kaufman says the page system is abused by some Hill aides, and that it is possible that some "runners" could have unknowingly carried drugs between offices. "The offices misuse the system," he said. "We know it, but there was nothing we could do about it. It wouldn't surprise me if the pages were being used unknowingly."
Fresh-faced and wiry, innocent and feisty, they are the familiar faces of any high school. Some drink beer at the Tune Inn after work, run through fountains in the middle of the night, throw wild parties to the throbbing sounds of Bruce Springsteen and at times forget to pay their rent.
They are the envy of their peers, a select group lucky enough to know a congressman or be able to pull a string and at a tender age to be exposed to high-powered politics, roll calls and filibusters. The contacts and experience, they hope, will lead to a brighter future.
"I think having it on your re'sume' can only be a good thing--that's what they look for on re'sume's," says Rachel Herman, a 16-year-old Senate summer page from Takoma Park, who is interested in "solving political problems." She said she didn't let the recent scandal affect her attitude because "I really don't believe people do those kinds of things . . ."
The positions are patronage slots usually decided by congressional seniority. In the House, the Democratic slots theoretically are controlled by Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), chairman of the Democratic Personnel Committee. It has been said, however, that House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill (D-Mass.) in reality controls the slots. The Republicans have a similar committee chaired by Rep. John Myers (R-Ind.). In the Senate, the sergeant-at-arms assumes responsibility for the pages during congressional working hours. They have a similar patronage system.
To many, the most frightening and persistent snag in the page system is the absence of anything that resembles parental responsibility for the pages after working hours while they are in Washington. Since 1970, when Congress approved preliminary plans to build a dorm, supporters have been trying unsuccessfully to get the funds approved. As a consequence, each page must find his own place to live.
During the school year, between the hours of roughly 6 and 10 a.m., the pages are the responsibility of the Page School, and between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., or until Congress recesses, they are the responsibility of Congress. Parents are asked to sign a statement assuming full responsibility for the safety and supervision of the youth while he's living in the District of Columbia area and traveling to and from Congress. This is to relieve the Page School, members of Congress and the doorkeeper's office of responsibility during off hours.
"The number one problem with the system is that it is unclear who exactly is in charge of the children while they're here," said Rep. Paul Simon (R-Ill.), who Monday reintroduced a bill (along with Rep. Frank Annunzio D-Ill. ) calling for a congressional board to oversee the pages.
"Secondly, I seriously question whether kids 14 and 15 years old should be allowed into the program," said Simon. "Even at 16 and 17--that's a little young for the kids to be here on their own."
"We would have never, never allowed Polly to become a page if she was not living at home with us," said Janice Padden, mother of House Speaker "Tip" O'Neill's page last year. "The conditions they had to live with were very difficult for young kids. I think the kids get lonely. We used to have some of them come over here with their laundry."
When the kids arrive in Washington, they are handed a list of housing suggestions, which range from rooming houses to apartments. Several rooming house landlords who were contacted said they had no comment on the current allegations and did not want to discuss the pages.
The Thompson Markwood Home on Second Street NE--a drab brick building about a quarter of a block long--has been housing pages for years. In 1975, the home asked Congress for money to fix up the place because some of the boys had set a couch on fire, exit signs had been ripped off all the doors and the clappers were pulled off the fire alarms, requiring new systems.
The Classroom Concept
The Capitol Page School consists of only six classrooms and a principal's office. It is located on the top floor of the Library of Congress, right across an emerald lawn from the Capitol. Lockers clutter the hallway. It's eerily empty now, closed for the summer. The principal, John C. Hoffman, could not be reached for comment.
Part of the District of Columbia school system, the school has been criticized at times for not providing adequate courses. In 1976, the House Committee on Education and Labor conducted extensive hearings on the matter. No changes were made.
According to a spokesman for the doorkeeper's office, about 97 percent of the 1982 graduates have been accepted to college this fall. Of the 40 graduates, 24 were members of the National Honor Society.
Like Chris Riley, 18, of Austin, Tex., who was a page for two years. He'll be going to Harvard.
"It was the best experience of my life," he said when contacted in Texas. "I had been there long enough that I think I would have heard if all this was going on. It's ridiculous . . . I've given some thought to whether this scandal will stick with me . . . I hope not. I don't want people looking at me and thinking, 'Oh, you're one of them.' "