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Hastert accepts blame in scandal

House Speaker Dennis Hastert says House leaders could have handled the Mark Foley case better, but dismisses calls that he resign.

Published October 5, 2006

WASHINGTON — Saying he was “deeply sorry” for the Mark Foley scandal, embattled U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Thursday he takes full responsibility for the handling of the former Florida congressman’s behavior toward teenage boys.

But after days of criticism from conservative leaders and members of Congress of both parties, Hastert said he will not step down as speaker and he plans to run for the job again next year.

“I am deeply sorry that this happened,’’ he said at a news conference in his home state of Illinois. “The bottom line is that we’re taking responsibility. ... The buck stops here.”

The scandal has threatened to tip the November elections for the Democrats, and perhaps topple the speaker and his leadership team.

Hastert denied any wrongdoing and stressed again that Republican House leaders did not try to cover up Foley’s actions despite accusations to the contrary.

His comments came a day after claims from Foley’s longtime chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, that he warned House leaders about Foley’s “inappropriate behavior” with teenage congressional pages in 2003.

“Could we have done it better? ... In retrospect, probably, yes,’’ Hastert said. “But at that time, what we knew and what we acted upon was what we had.”

Hastert got a boost Thursday when President Bush called him to thank him for how he has handled the situation. Several other prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill offered support too, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and some who earlier criticized the speaker.

At the Capitol, the House Ethics Committee met for nearly four hours, opening a wide-ranging investigation into the scandal and approving four dozen subpoenas for witnesses and documents.

A four-person subcommittee will lead the inquiry, expected to take weeks. Subcommittee members will look into lawmakers and staffers involved in any improper conduct with current and former pages. The proceedings are closed.

“The facts will lead to us to who, if there is someone who perhaps did a coverup,’’ said Rep. Judy Biggert, an Illinois Republican who sits on the committee. “First we have to establish who knew what, who did it and why and what action they took.”

House leaders say they have known since November 2005 about one “over friendly” e-mail exchange Foley had with a 16-year-old page from Louisiana, but not the sexually explicit instant messages disclosed Friday that led to the congressman’s resignation.

Democrats, represented equally on the ethics panel, praised the committee’s work, but denied Hastert’s suggestion they might be behind the release of Foley’s correspondence.

“The young people, their parents, and the public deserve answers,’’ House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said. “Those who covered up Mark Foley’s behavior must be held accountable.”

Meanwhile, information released Thursday indicates that Foley may have tried to visit congressional pages at their dormitory and that his questionable behavior went back a decade or more.

Rep. Deborah Pryce, the fourth-highest House Republican, asked the House clerk to investigate an allegation that Foley was once turned away from the dormitory by Capitol police while intoxicated. Later, the page program staff reportedly raised concerns about him with the former House clerk.

Fordham, Foley’s former chief of staff, said earlier this week that the former House clerk approached him after some pages complained about Foley’s behavior.

Fordham said he spoke to Foley and later to Hastert’s chief of staff about those concerns in 2003. Hastert’s office denies that happened.

“You know, it’s interesting,” Hastert said. “Kirk Fordham also said just about three or four days ago that he worked for this guy for 10 years and he never did anything wrong. So there’s a little bit of difference in the testimony or what he said.”

The FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are investigating Foley’s communications and contact with teenagers. Fordham, who resigned Wednesday as chief of staff for another House leader, spoke to federal agents Thursday.

Across the nation, former pages are starting to be identified as having received correspondence or advances from Foley.

ABC News reported that three more former pages have come forward with allegations that they received “sexual approaches” over the Internet. One former page, who has been interviewed by the FBI, said Foley invited him to stay at his home in Washington in return for oral sex.

Tyson Vivyan, 26, of Atlanta also said he received sexually suggestive computer messages in 1997 from an anonymous sender who turned out to be Foley. Vivyan said that he visited Foley’s home for pizza and soft drinks but that nothing sexual happened. He, too, was interviewed by the FBI.

Hastert was expected to announce that he was appointing former FBI director Louis Freeh to review the 167-year-old page program and recommend improvements. But he didn’t mention Freeh at his news conference, saying only that he was working to find a “high-caliber” person to advise the House on reforms. He also announced the creation of a confidential toll free hot-line — 1-866-348-0481 —   to report information about abuses related to the page program.

Republican members of Congress campaigning across the nation are finding that the Foley scandal is dominating politics just a month before the election. Some said they are concerned that the scandal will help Democrats, who some observers say already had their best chance in 12 years to take back control of the House.

About half of likely voters in an AP-Ipsos poll this week said recent disclosures of scandal in Congress will be very or extremely important in their vote next month. Democrats enjoyed a nearly 2-to-1 advantage as the party better able to fight corruption.

“I don’t think you should hold every member of Congress responsible for what happened in the case of Mark Foley,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said. “Come Election Day, the question is whether people are going to be voting on the basis of disgusting (instant messages) between a grown man and a young man or something that’s probably more important to everybody.”

Foley, 52, a Republican from the West Palm Beach area, has entered an in-patient rehabilitation facility for alcohol abuse and behavior problems at an undisclosed location, where he expects to stay at least 30 days.

His attorney, David Roth, said this week that Foley was abused by a clergyman as a teenager but accepts responsibility for sending sexually explicit correspondence to boys. He also acknowledged publicly for the first time what many in Washington already knew: Foley is gay.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press. Anita Kumar can be reached at and 202-463-0576.

[Last modified October 5, 2006, 22:09:07]

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