Brown-Waite marks distance

The Republican steps away from former mentor Mark Foley, as well as the president and speaker.

Published October 6, 2006

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert should resign if he knew of former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley's "salacious" communications with teenagers and failed to act, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite said Thursday.

"If he knew it and did nothing, that's absolutely wrong," she said.

Of her longtime political colleague and sometimes mentor, Brown-Waite had even harsher words:

Foley is "a sick individual," a "fractured personality," she said.

Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who is seeking her third term in Congress, spoke out against Foley during a meeting Thursday with the Times editorial board. In that meeting, she also withdrew her previously vehement support for the war in Iraq.

Foley's sex-related scandal is the latest to hit Washington, D.C., which Brown-Waite jokingly called "Hollywood for ugly men." Foley resigned Sept. 29 after e-mails and instant messages surfaced that the congressman had sent to underage congressional pages.

Brown-Waite said she'd never had any suspicions that Foley's behavior was inappropriate, even though she had known him for years.

The two served together in the Florida Senate, and Foley lent Brown-Waite his chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, for her 2002 congressional campaign.

Because of the Foley controversy, Fordham resigned Wednesday from his post as Rep. Tom Reynolds' chief of staff. Fordham, who claimed he had told GOP leaders about Foley's improprieties as early as 2003, said he didn't want his involvement in the scandal to mar Reynolds' campaign.

When Brown-Waite won her House seat in 2002, she counted both Foley and Reynolds as allies.

"Mark and I just really get along and have, I think, the same ideology," she told the Times that year when asked whom she would turn to for guidance in Congress. "Tom Reynolds from New York is another person. He was a member of the House in New York state. That's where I know him from."

Now, Brown-Waite said, she wonders whether she ever really knew Foley.

"There would have to be a split personality there, that he could do something like that," she said Thursday.

Foley was always a charismatic force who "loved the spotlight," she said. He would entertain friends with his searing impersonations of Bill Clinton and other politicians.

"He could do Bill Nelson so that if they were at a debate and Bill Nelson didn't show up, he could do both parts," she said. "I mean, he had Bill Nelson's voice intonations down to a science."

Everyone knew Foley was gay, and though he never admitted it, he "had some great gay jokes," she said.

The congressman was always friendly with pages, both male and female, Brown-Waite said. He would take the time to chat with them, find out where they were from, who they were working for.

As soon as word of the explicit messages broke, Brown-Waite called the two girls she had recommended for the page program.

She wanted to know: Had they ever been made to feel uncomfortable in D.C?

Both said no.

Since the scandal broke, Foley has entered a rehab program, but Brown-Waite said she was skeptical of his motivations.

The rehab center "has got to be the most effective rehab center in the whole wide world," she said. "Because in two days, he was able to admit he was abused by a clergyman and he's an alcoholic and he's gay."

Foley has never been an alcoholic, she said. In fact, she used to joke with him about being "a cheap date."

"I have seen Mark take a drink of wine that he nurses all night long," she said. "I never saw him inebriated, never saw him even close, never saw him slur a word."

As for Hastert, Brown-Waite said she would wait for the results of investigations by the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement before making any final decisions. But if those investigations reveal that the speaker was aware of Foley's inappropriate behavior and did not intervene, she would support a call for his resignation.

Also on Thursday, Brown-Waite distanced herself from another political ally: President Bush.

Members of Congress have become more skeptical of the president as progress in Iraq lags, she said.

Two years ago, Brown-Waite told constituents the United States would be out of Iraq in two years.

"I admit my mistake," she said.

Though Brown-Waite has touted progress in Iraq, she sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in April expressing concern about corruption in the Iraqi government. She said she didn't receive a satisfactory response and sent another letter, to which there has been no response.

America needs to give the Iraqi government a deadline, she said, so officials won't treat the United States like "Daddy Warbucks."

Within a year, the United States needs to start pulling troops out, she said.

Some experts have predicted that the unpopular war in Iraq will sweep Democrats into Congress this year. Brown-Waite, however, said she doesn't think immediately withdrawing troops - as her opponent, Democrat John Russell, proposes - would be a smart move.

Neither does she believe that Foley's transgressions should - or will - color voters' perceptions of the Republican Party.

But people are watching. Nearly 20 have called Brown-Waite to discuss Foley, she said.

One constituent who approached her had particularly sound advice for coping with the debacle, the congresswoman said.

"This guy came up to me and said, 'I've come to a conclusion,' " Brown-Waite said. "I'm only going to vote for women for Congress because they don't go up there and screw around."

Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com or (352) 564-3627.