tampabay.com

Page-lawmaker relations are often blurred by egos

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published October 5, 2006


Every year, 102 teenagers are chosen by their congressmen and senators to be pages in Washington, D.C. What these 72 House pages and 30 Senate pages do - mainly running documents and messages between lawmakers - is not particularly heady business.

But their selection, as well as the company they keep, is.

Former pages and their parents say the ego-fest between lawmakers and pages, many of them 16 years old, is a two-way street that makes everybody happy - unless the person in power goes too far, as Mark Foley did. But they say recognizing when that happens, unless it's blatant, is a tough call because the environment thrives on giving and getting attention.

"Think about what you have with the page program," said Minnesotan Jean Lakin, mother of two former pages. "You have congressmen with egos larger than the great outdoors paying attention to kids who are away from home and feeling large and in charge. Of course the kids are drawn to them, especially the friendly ones."

Among the "friendliest," former pages say, was Mark Foley. Other lawmakers would buy them food when Congress worked late. But Foley's kindnesses made a more lasting impression.

"He had a way of standing out and making us feel we did," said 2001 page Dillon Webb from Texas. "We didn't see it as sexual. We just liked the attention and were conceited and naive enough to think we deserved it."

That was the kind of environment it was, said Webb: "The more attention, the better."

Foley obliged. He called them by name and always greeted them enthusiastically. He remembered little details about their lives that made them feel "important and special." While he was nice to the girls, he seemed to favor the boys, former pages say. (There are usually a few more male pages than female ones.)

When Foley would drive up in his blue BMW convertible in white pants and a dark jacket "the guys would talk about how cool he was," Webb said.

A competition of sorts, centering on Foley, developed among some of the male pages, said Webb: "We all wanted to know who Foley was IMing (instant messaging) now."

"I never heard anything about him soliciting. I never heard any complaints," Webb said. "It was just that we were 16-year-old guys who liked getting attention from a U.S. congressman."

Webb said he never got messages from Foley and felt "kind of left out." He has since reconsidered: "Now that I've seen what he wrote, I'm really thankful," he said.

They saw a pat on the back or a hug from Foley as an indication that they were special, pages say. It is only now, in retrospect, that they're questioning whether it was an overture.

"We didn't know what we know now," 2001 page Ian Tanner said.

But Matthew Loraditch, also a 2001 page, said on ABC's Nightline on Friday that the class was warned about Foley by program leaders.

"Don't get too wrapped up in him being nice to you. ... He's a little bit odd," Loraditch said they were told.

Part of the reason for giving Foley the benefit of the doubt, pages say, is that their safety seemed important to those running the program.

They lived in dorms, where a police officer always patrolled. They passed through metal scanners and a series of locked doors, which required a card to open, to get to their rooms. They were not allowed to go anywhere alone but had to take at least one other page with them. They had a 10 p.m. curfew on weeknights and a midnight curfew on weekends.

Tanner recalled that part of the page orientation was to tell them about a 1983 scandal involving sex between two pages and two lawmakers - Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., and Rep. Dan Crane, R-Ill. The teachers showed them newspaper articles and warned them not to get involved in anything "inappropriate."

"We were told," Tanner said, "that everything that happens in Washington gets in the papers and we needed to be careful. We were told if anyone approached us to report it."

But Tanner says, as far as he knew, no one in his class ever felt "approached."

In 2002, Foley gave the farewell speech to Tanner's group. He called out several of their names and became teary-eyed when he spoke of their "tenacity and leadership." He mentioned some of the ways he had reached out to them - going to dinner, asking questions about their personal lives and messaging them - which made his friendliness seem harmless.

"We weren't thinking sex," Tanner said. "We were thinking we were special."

Foley told the group that he had barely graduated from high school and had not gone to college. He said he had succeeded because he "never gave in to the instincts to be lazy or run for cover."

Monday, in a statement issued by his lawyer, Foley said that he had been sexually abused as a teenager, led a secret gay life and became an alcoholic to deal with the coverup. He implied that his "behavioral problems" were the result of a covert life.

Tom O'Rourke, father of two former pages from California, says his son Brian used to find ways to "sneak on the floor" to be around Foley and the other lawmakers.

"It was a happening place, and he liked to be part of the action," O'Rourke said. "What teenager wouldn't?"

Brian particularly liked it when the lawmakers had parties and invited pages.

"We get to see another side of them," he told his dad.

"Nothing sexual with Foley or any of them as far as I know, just jocular and relaxed, which the kids liked," O'Rourke said.

Danielle Ruse of Ocala spent nine months as a 1999-2000 congressional page. One of the great things about it, she says, was when the representatives paid attention to them and made them feel like equals.

"Foley did this," she said. "He was really, really, really nice to us, and we noticed."

"He was a favorite," Ruse said.