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Scandal has GOP leaders on defensive

House Speaker Dennis Hastert fends off calls for his resignation as critics accuse Republican leaders of mishandling the Foley situation.

Published October 4, 2006

Mark Foley issued a statement Tuesday saying he was abused as a teen.
Foley likely to face criminal charges, legal experts say

Foley tells of being abused

Political blog: The Buzz

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WASHINGTON - The spotlight in the congressional e-mail scandal shifted from former Rep. Mark Foley to House Speaker Dennis Hastert on Tuesday, as a handful of conservatives called for his resignation and his second-in-command distanced himself from the handling of the matter.

While there was no sign of revolt among the House Republicans who elected Hastert, several publicly said the leadership bungled the matter, and many said they fear the scandal will dampen their prospects in next month's elections.

Hastert, meanwhile, defended his team's handling of the case, and he told radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh that Democrats were trying to use the scandal at election time "to block us from telling the story" of Republican successes in Congress.

"What we've tried to do as the Republican Party is make a better economy, protect this country against terrorism ... and there are some people that try to tear us down," Hastert said on Limbaugh's radio show.

"We are the insulation to protect this country, and if they get to me it looks like they could affect our election as well."

But some of the harshest words came from conservative leaders, who said the House leadership should have fully investigated Foley's conduct in November, when the parents of a former teenage page for Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., complained about chatty - but not sexual - e-mails that Foley had sent their son.

Instead, under the direction of Hastert's staff, the head of the House Page Board confronted Foley, a Republican from Fort Pierce, and ordered him not to contact the boy.

Hastert has since acknowledged those e-mails were "red flags" that suggested a larger problem.

"We are not satisfied that the congressional leadership followed through to sufficiently investigate this matter," said Jan LaRue, chief counsel for the Concerned Women for America, a conservative advocacy group usually aligned with House leadership. "You don't ignore what you characterize as 'red flags.' Certainly not when it's involving a minor, and minors that parents entrust into your care."

Tuesday morning, the editorial board of the Washington Times, which usually sides with the Republican congressional leadership, called on Hastert to resign as speaker.

"Either he was grossly negligent for not taking the red flags fully into account and ordering a swift investigation ... or he deliberately looked the other way in hopes that a brewing scandal would simply blow away," the newspaper's editors wrote. "Mr. Hastert has forfeited the confidence of the public and his party."

Hastert dismissed the suggestion, and both President Bush and Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, the second-ranking House Republican, defended him. But in an interview with a Cincinnati radio station, Boehner said that he was only tangentially involved in the matter and that the page program falls under the speaker's purview.

"I believe I had talked to the speaker and he told me it had been taken care of," Boehner said. "It's in his corner, it's his responsibility."

Last fall, when the page's parents contacted Alexander's office about the e-mails from Foley, Alexander's chief of staff contacted the speaker's office. Under the direction of Hastert's in-house counsel, the House clerk and chairman of the House Page Board, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., confronted Foley.

Foley insisted he was just being friendly, and agreed not to e-mail the boy again.

Hastert and other senior Republican leaders say they considered the case closed. They did not interview other pages or notify the two other members of Congress on the page board, Reps. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Dale Kildee, D-Mich.

On Friday, 10 months later, ABC News made public dozens of sexually explicit instant messages that Foley had traded with former congressional pages. Foley resigned.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville was among several Republicans who now say House leaders should have delved more deeply into those original allegations.

"It was incumbent upon Mr. Shimkus and the board to start interviewing pages," Brown-Waite said Tuesday. "More absolutely could have been done. If you think there is an issue there, you don't just talk to the perpetrator."

Ken Connor, a longtime conservative activist who ran for governor of Florida in 1994, said it appears House leaders "were more worried about the perpetuation of power than the protection of children."

"The e-mails seem to indicate an unhealthy interest of a 52-year-old man in a 16-year-old boy," Connor said. "I don't think it's enough that the parents didn't want to go further. There were several questions that they needed to ask."

Congress is in recess and most House members are home campaigning. During a conference call with Republicans on Monday, Hastert assured his colleagues that his office acted appropriately.

But Republicans were already facing a difficult election season, with several GOP-held seats up for grabs or leaning toward Democrats. Democrats need 15 seats to take control of the House and six to win the Senate, and several Republican members said the scandal won't help their cause.

"It casts a terrible stigma upon the Congress, and especially the Republicans since the Republicans are the majority," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores.

Gary Marx, a political organizer who headed evangelical outreach for President Bush's last campaign, said he believes the Foley scandal will be overshadowed by local issues. Most Americans hardly know who Hastert is, he said.

"I still think this is, 'How's my congressman?' " he said, "not, 'How's my GOP leadership?' "

Times staff writers Bill Adair and Adam Smith contributed to this report.

[Last modified October 4, 2006, 07:10:55]

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