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Politics

What did Congress' leadership know, when?

More than a year ago, e-mails surfaced between former Rep. Mark Foley and a former page. Questions started, then stopped.

By BILL ADAIR
Published October 3, 2006


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The Buzz

WASHINGTON - A little more than a year ago, a teenage boy in Louisiana e-mailed a staffer he had befriended in Congress. The boy, a former page, said he was disturbed by e-mails he had received from Rep. Mark Foley, including one asking for a photo. The boy described the request as "sick sick sick."

The boy's e-mail triggered an extraordinary chain of events. Republican lawmakers and their staffers say they quickly held meetings and made calls. Rep. John Shimkus, the Illinois Republican who oversees the page program, met with Foley and told him "to immediately cease any communication with the young man."

But for all the urgent meetings and the stern warning, their investigation stopped.

They did not ask Foley about his contacts with other pages, nor did they ask pages or former pages about contacts with the Fort Pierce Republican.

The time line of the Foley scandal contains gaps and unanswered questions, but the details so far indicate Republican leaders failed to pursue clues that Foley was making unusual advances to teenage boys.

Republican leaders say they were following the wishes of the boy's parents, who simply wanted the contacts to stop.

Should they have done more?

"Woulda, coulda, shoulda - I don't know," Hastert said Monday. "What Mr. Shimkus did, he did what he thought was prudent at the time."

The parents' wishes

The e-mail exchange with the boy wasn't Foley's first.

In 2003, the congressman exchanged explicit instant messages with another former page, according to ABC News. Those messages led to Foley's resignation from Congress on Friday.

But the e-mails with the Louisiana boy are the center of the political controversy because of the inconsistent reaction by Republican leaders.

The boy's e-mail to his friend, with copies of his correspondence with Foley, was sent to a staffer for Rep. Rodney Alexander, a Louisiana Republican who had been the boy's sponsor when he was a page. Within a few months, those e-mails ended up in the hands of reporters from several news organizations, including the St. Petersburg Times.

The Times tracked down the boy, who said he cut off communications with Foley after the e-mails. His parents told the Times they did not want their son to be named.

Another former page said he, too, had received e-mails from the 52-year-old congressman - who was popular with the pages because he struck up conversation - but the former page said he had not seen Foley do anything improper. Foley told the Times that he was just being friendly.

The Times and other news organizations did not publish their stories because reporters and editors found insufficient evidence of wrongdoing. But the reporters' calls had alerted Republican lawmakers, who now say they moved quickly to investigate the matter.

When pressed in November about Foley requesting a photo from the boy, Alexander declined to say whether he considered it inappropriate. Yet his chief of staff quickly contacted Hastert's office.

In a single day, that triggered conversations that referred the matter to the clerk of the House, who is in charge of the page program.

As the meetings were held, the staffers were operating without details because, in keeping with the parents' wish for privacy, they did not have the e-mails.

Even the clerk who was in charge of the page program wasn't shown the e-mails. He had to rely on an assurance from Alexander's chief of staff that they were not sexual and were simply "over-friendly."

A meeting with Foley

Shimkus said there was a sense of urgency to their work.

"I took immediate action to investigate the matter," he said in a statement. He and the clerk met with Foley, and asked about the e-mails. The South Florida Republican said he was just asking if the boy had been harmed by Hurricane Katrina.

"Congressman Foley said he expressed concern about the page's well-being and wanted a photo to see that the former page was all right," Shimkus said.

Foley said he was "simply acting as a mentor to this former House page and that nothing inappropriate had occurred," Shimkus said

Despite the explanation, Shimkus and the clerk were wary.

"We ordered Congressman Foley to cease all contact with this former House page to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. We also advised him to be especially mindful of his conduct with respect to current and former House pages, and he assured us he would do so."

At that point, despite the urgency that leaders say they had when they heard about the e-mails, the House investigation stopped,

A few months later, Alexander mentioned the incident to Rep. Tom Reynolds, who heads the House Republican campaign committee. Reynolds said he mentioned it to Hastert but indicated that it had been resolved.

Why didn't the Republican leaders explore the possibility that there might be other cases?

Hastert said there was nothing explicit in the first e-mails and that he was following the parents' request.

Shimkus said he "received no subsequent complaints about his behavior nor was I ever made aware of any additional e-mails."

Republican leaders probably had no legal obligation to report Foley to the authorities, but some experts said they should have seen that his behavior probably was not limited to this one incident.

"I think the speaker is being remarkably naive, and you have to question whether it's intentional or because he truly doesn't have a clue," said Steve Crawford, a former federal prosecutor in Tampa.

"Anybody who knows anything about child abuse or about sexual predators knows that there is a significant period of what we call grooming, and grooming is where the predator spends time, and lays the traps, and develops the trust and goes from there."

On Monday, the leaders blamed Foley. Said Hastert: "Congressman Foley duped a lot of people."

Staff writers Anita Kumar and Wes Allison contributed to this report. Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or 202 463-0575.

[Last modified October 3, 2006, 01:01:20]


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