Foley scandal widens

In addition to an investigation into the politician's actions, House leaders should answer for whether they ignored disturbing signals.

A Times Editorial
Published October 3, 2006

The mushrooming scandal over former Florida Rep. Mark Foley's sexually explicit e-mails to teenage congressional pages is likely to get worse before it gets better. Republican House leaders have had trouble getting their story straight about who knew what when, and Democrats eager to capitalize in the upcoming elections already are alleging a coverup. The only appropriate response is to shine a bright spotlight into this dark corner of Congress, illuminate the truth, and hold Foley accountable for his actions - and his former colleagues for their inaction if they knew or reasonably suspected wrongdoing.

The state and federal criminal investigations will determine whether Foley, a popular South Florida Republican first elected to Congress in 1994, broke any laws. He resigned Friday and checked into an alcohol treatment facility over the weekend, but he should not escape prosecution. There can be zero tolerance for adults who sexually prey on minors, and there is still much to learn about the extent and nature of Foley's indefensible behavior.

Simultaneously, the House must be transparent and thorough as it conducts its own investigation. It did not get off to the best of starts. House Speaker Dennis Hastert pleads amnesia and still insists he doesn't remember hearing anything about Foley's tamer e-mails until the news broke last week. But two other top Republicans have contradicted him and told reporters the speaker and his aides had been told of the inappropriate 2005 e-mails from Foley to a 16-year-old page. And after Republicans indicated there had been an investigation by a panel that oversees the House page program, the only Democrat on that board said he was never told about the allegations.

A rigorous investigation should examine how the House leadership handled the 2005 e-mails, which turned out to be the least explicit but should have been taken more seriously. At one point, the Louisiana congressman who sponsored the page involved passed on the information to Rep. Thomas Reynolds of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, instead of pressing top House leaders. By then, it appears Reynolds had hired Foley's former chief of staff to fill the same position in his own office. Foley, who described those e-mails as innocent when initially confronted, was told by the House clerk and another lawmaker to stop communicating with that teen. But given Foley's well-known attentiveness to the pages, this warning sign should have triggered a more aggressive, independent response.

Instead, Republicans assumed they had kept the situation under wraps. It wasn't until the more sexually explicit messages from 2003 were about to become public Friday that Foley resigned and House leaders reacted with shock and disgust. One of the more pressing questions now is whether anyone knew about these or similar messages earlier. Several pages were reportedly aware of "creepy" messages Foley sent to pages as early as 2002. Did the congressman's colleagues not notice his unusual closeness to pages, or did they notice and turn away? Hastert insisted Monday that no House leaders knew about any explicit messages sent by Foley to pages until Friday, but that's not good enough. Investigators should be asking more questions and talking to former pages as well.

This scandal is larger than one congressman's abhorrent behavior. It speaks to the insular culture that has bred other scandals in the Republican-controlled House and to the typical reaction to try to contain the fire before it breaks into the open. That almost never works, and the Foley scandal is one more blemish that could bring about a regime change in November.