Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House majority whip, acknowledged Monday that he spoke at a gathering hosted by white-supremacist leaders while serving as a state representative in 2002, thrusting a racial controversy into House Republican ranks days before the party assumes control of both congressional chambers.

Scalise, 49, who ascended to the House GOP’s third-ranking post this year, confirmed through an adviser that he once appeared at a convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO. But the adviser said the congressman didn’t know at the time about the group’s affiliation with racists and neo-Nazi activists.

“For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous,” Scalise told the Times-Picayune on Monday night. The organization, founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, has been called a hate group by several civil rights organizations.

The news could complicate Republican efforts to project the sense of a fresh start for a resurgent, diversifying party as the new session of Congress opens next week. In the time since voters handed control of Congress to Republicans, top GOP leaders have been eagerly trumpeting their revamped image and management team on Capitol Hill.

Monday night, some Democrats were already raising questions about whether Scalise should remain in a leadership post.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) says he won a three-way race for majority whip because his coalition was united, and says his election is "a win for America." (The Associated Press)

“It’s hard to believe, given David Duke’s reputation in Louisiana, that somebody in politics in Louisiana wasn’t aware of Duke’s associations with the group and what they stand for,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (Tex.), a rising star in the Democratic Party who is considered among the most prominent Hispanics in Congress. “If that’s the case and he agreed to join them for their event, then I think it’s a real test for Speaker Boehner as to whether congressman Scalise should remain in Republican leadership,” Castro said in a phone interview.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) called the news “a big deal.”

“Race still is, sadly, an ugly aspect of our politics,” he said by e-mail. “No politician should ever find himself/herself addressing a white supremacist organization except to tell them to go to hell.” Associates of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) are monitoring the situation, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s staff had no comment.

Scalise’s political circle worked furiously late Monday to quell the storm, with his confidants e-mailing reporters and House members, assuring them that Scalise did not know the implications of his actions in 2002 and describing him as a disorganized and ill-prepared young politician who didn’t pay close attention to invitations.

When Scalise was asked by the Times-Picayune how he came to appear at the conference, he cited his staff, saying he had only one person working for him at the time. “When someone called and asked me to speak, I would go,” he said. “If I knew today what they were about, I wouldn’t go.”

In a phone interview late Monday from his home in Mandeville, La., Duke recalled Scalise as a “nice guy” and said he was invited to the conference by two of Duke’s longtime associates: Howie Farrell, who had worked on Duke’s gubernatorial campaign, and Kenny Knight.

Scalise “says he didn’t realize what the conference was. I don’t know if he did or did not,” Duke said. He also said Scalise should not be forced to resign, saying Scalise was merely taking an opportunity to meet with “constituents.”

“What politician would ever pass up an opportunity to talk to his constituents?” Duke said. “It sounds like they are just playing politics.”

Duke said he spoke to the conference twice, once by phone and later by video hookup. But he did not hear Scalise speak, he said, and does not know whether Scalise heard him speak.

In a statement, Scalise’s spokeswoman, Moira Bagley Smith, emphasized that the then-state lawmaker was unaware at the time of the group’s ideology and mission. “He has never been affiliated with the abhorrent group in question,” Smith said. “The hate-fueled ignorance and intolerance that group projects is in stark contradiction to what Mr. Scalise believes and practices as a father, a husband, and a devoted Catholic.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a leading conservative in the House, said in an interview Monday that he stood by Scalise and believed that many conservatives in the House’s hard-right bloc would do the same.

“Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners,” King said. “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, it’s the sick. Given that piece of Scripture, and understanding that Scalise probably wasn’t staffed thoroughly, I could understand how something like this happened. But I know his heart, I’ve painted houses with him post-Katrina, and I know he is a good man.”

Scalise’s appearance at the event was first reported by blogger Lamar White Jr., who manages a Web site on Louisiana politics.

White’s post, which was published Sunday, said Scalise spoke at the Best Western Landmark hotel in Metairie, La., a suburb of New Orleans, as a part of a two-day conference in May 2002.

“Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, former Louisiana State Representative, and former Republican candidate for Louisiana governor, was attempting to rebrand his movement into something more palatable and less incendiary, and the ambiguous-sounding EURO seemed to do the trick,” White wrote.

Ronald Doggett, the head of the Virginia chapter of EURO, said Duke participated in the conference via phone from Russia, where the former KKK leader was living at the time.

Doggett, who attended the conference, said he did not remember hearing Scalise speak but said it would not be unusual for EURO to have contact with local officials.

“If that happened, so what?” Doggett said in a phone interview Monday. “What is the big deal? There’s a different standard for whites than there are for other groups. How is this really news?”

Scalise’s aides said that because of the unavailability of Scalise’s schedule from that year, they did not have details to share about his appearance or remarks. They said he was a frequent speaker at events at that hotel — a hot spot for New Orleans-area conferences.

Scalise’s defense — that he and his staff were not fully cognizant of the group’s leanings and the nature of the meeting — contrasts with the local news media coverage generated by the Duke-coordinated conclave that spring.

The Gambit Weekly, an alternative publication in New Orleans, wrote days before the conference that the hotel distanced itself from Duke’s group. “A contract to book this event was made some time ago, and it is our practice to fulfill our contractual obligations,” a company spokesman told the publication. “Our company does not share the views of this organization.”

The Iowa Cubs, a minor league baseball team, also told the Gambit Weekly that they were concerned about housing their players, which included several African Americans, at that hotel while traveling to Louisiana.

“I’m glad we’re staying away from it,” Pat Listach, then a Cubs coach, said in an interview earlier that month. “I wouldn’t have been comfortable staying there.”

The Duke group drew additional headlines nationally in the weeks before the Louisiana meeting. In mid-May 2002, USA Today reported that the organization was active in South Carolina and had “picketed” there to support the Confederate flag flying on state Capitol grounds.

In February 2002, The Washington Post reported that Duke’s group was organizing in Virginia and “demanding that black teenagers be prosecuted for hate crimes against whites.”

The news about Scalise, coupled with the unrelated legal troubles of two other GOP lawmakers, could disrupt Republican plans to hit the ground running this January as the party takes full control of Congress.

Rep. Michael G. Grimm (R-N.Y.), who represents Staten Island, pleaded guilty last week to felony tax fraud and on Monday privately signaled he was readying to resign, according to House Republican staffers familiar with his calls to House GOP leaders. And Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) has been accused by a fired former staffer of creating a hostile work environment. The staffer has sued, alleging that the congressman “regularly drank to excess” and made sexually inappropriate comments to another co-worker.

A former chairman of the Republican Study Committee — the caucus of the most conservative GOP members — Scalise was elected majority whip in June, following the defeat of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia Republican primary. Cantor’s loss and subsequent departure from Congress opened up the whip post after then-Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) decided to seek Cantor’s position as Boehner’s deputy. Scalise won the third-ranking job on the first ballot.

Shortly after Election Day, Scalise told reporters that he was excited to help lead “one of the most diverse Congresses we’ve ever had.”

“I’m excited about that opportunity to help be a part of this leadership team that’s stronger than ever and more focused on the problems this country is facing and working to get our country back on track,” he said.

But Scalise’s engagement with a white-supremacist group might create immediate disquiet for at least two members of the expanded Republican majority.

For the first time in several years, the House GOP conference will include two black members — Mia Love, a former mayor of a small Utah town, and Will Hurd, a former CIA operative, who will represent a swing district in Texas. They cast their candidacies as historic, while GOP leaders embraced them as examples of the party’s broadening appeal.

Manuel Roig-Franzia contributed to this report.