Foley's 'red flags' didn't raise enough eyebrows

Looking back, observers say Mark Foley's behavior should have been dealt with long ago.

Published October 15, 2006

WASHINGTON - One night a few years ago, Rep. Mark Foley reportedly showed up at the dormitory for House pages, a brick building a few blocks from the Capitol. It's unclear what Foley wanted, but staffers believed he was drunk and turned him away.

A day or two later, House Clerk Jeff Trandahl called Foley's chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, and told him about the incident. Trandahl asked Fordham to speak with his boss about it.

As the details of Foley's secret life come to light, the dorm visit has emerged as another in a series of incidents involving Foley and pages that triggered modest concerns but not any alarms.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert conceded two weeks ago that Foley's especially friendly e-mail exchange with a Louisiana page last fall was "a red flag."

So was the dorm visit.

Over several years, members of Congress or their senior staff received at least four separate reports about unusual behavior by Foley. At least six lawmakers, all Republicans, and at least seven congressional staffers were aware of one or more of the episodes.

But nothing was done to stop Foley.

The FBI and the House ethics committee are delving into the Foley scandal and those episodes raise questions about why lawmakers and their staffers did not do more to determine if the red flags they saw signaled a pattern of inappropriate, possibly even illegal, activity in the Capitol.

"At every step of the way, people blew it," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which alerted the FBI to some of Foley's e-mails with the teenage boys last July. "They had opportunities for years to stop it and they didn't."

Lawmakers and staffers say they were unaware that Foley, who was known for being chatty with everyone, had engaged in overtly sexual conversations with the pages. They say it wasn't until Sept. 29, when ABC News published explicit instant messages, that they realized the extent of Foley's activities. He resigned from Congress that afternoon.

This account is based on interviews with people involved in the congressional response and their public statements. Although each saw different pieces of the puzzle, hints abounded that Foley was more than just an especially friendly congressman.

Early clues

One of the first known signs about Foley's behavior came as early as 2001 or 2002, when Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., was contacted by a former page who said he had received e-mails from Foley that made him "uncomfortable."

Kolbe said in a recent statement that he was not shown the messages but told his staff to pass the complaint to Foley's office and to Trandahl, the House clerk who oversaw the page program.

Kolbe said he "did not have a personal conversation with Mr. Foley about the matter," but said he thought it had been resolved. "I assume e-mail contact ceased since the former page never raised the issue again with my office," he said.

Fordham, Foley's top political adviser and chief of staff until late 2003, has said he was always wary about his employer's contacts with younger men.

Foley was gay but did not want to reveal his sexuality because of political considerations. Yet he could be unusually bold on Capitol Hill. He invited gay friends to visit his office and was especially friendly with young male staffers.

Fordham said that bothered him. He said he was concerned people would see Foley with young men. The men appeared to be in their 20s, creating an impression that Fordham says he believed was inappropriate for a congressman who at the time was in his late 40s. Fordham repeatedly warned Foley to be careful about appearances, but the congressman did not heed the advice.

The same went for the attention he showered on underage pages.

About five years ago, long before the dorm incident, Fordham got a call from Trandahl, who said he was concerned about Foley's contacts with pages. Trandahl asked Fordham to discuss it with Foley, and he did.

Some time later, Trandahl called again with the same request. Fordham has said the calls from Trandahl were prompted by Foley's overly friendly behavior with the pages. Fordham has said he saw nothing to indicate Foley was making sexual advances toward the boys.

Fordham again talked with Foley about the behavior but, once again, Foley did not follow his advice.

The dorm visit

Fordham says that when he heard from Trandahl about the dorm visit, he decided to do something unusual for a congressional chief of staff: alert the Republican leadership to Foley's behavior. Fordham has said he went to Scott Palmer, the chief of staff for Speaker Hastert, and asked Palmer to talk to Foley.

One account of the meeting indicates that Fordham did not tell Palmer about the dorm incident, but merely discussed Foley's general behavior with the pages.

That missing detail could be critical.

If Palmer was unaware of the dorm incident and believed he was merely addressing Foley's overall behavior with the pages, it could explain the lack of urgency by the Republican leadership.

Palmer, in fact, disputes that the meeting ever took place. "What Kirk Fordham said did not happen," he said in a statement.

Fordham, who is gay, has said he did not discuss the dorm incident with Foley himself. It's not clear why.

Trandahl has not spoken publicly about the Foley scandal. It's not known if he told anyone other than Fordham about the dorm visit. Trandahl left the clerk's office in November 2005 to run the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and is on the board of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian group.

Although Fordham has now testified before the House ethics committee, there are still many unanswered questions about Fordham, who left Foley's office in 2004 to work on the Senate campaign of Mel Martinez. Fordham then became chief of staff to Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-N.Y.

Like Trandahl, Fordham had many clues about Foley's activities with pages over several years. But Fordham has said he had no idea Foley was engaging in sexual conversations with any of the boys.

The 2005 e-mails

In fall 2005 the circle of people who knew about Foley's focus on young pages widened sharply. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., learned of e-mails Foley had sent just months earlier to a former page whom Alexander had sponsored for the program. The e-mails, in which Foley asked for a photograph of the boy, made the teenager so uncomfortable he described them as "sick sick sick sick."

Alexander said he contacted the boy's parents, who did not want to pursue the matter, but he still had his staff alert Hastert's office.

Within a day or two, at least three Hastert staffers were made aware of the e-mails. The staffers consulted with Trandahl and Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican who chaired the panel of House members that oversaw the page program.

According to an account from Hastert's office, Shimkus and Trandahl "immediately met with Foley to discuss the matter" and directed him to cease communicating with the boy. But there was no investigation and no attempt to interview other pages.

Hastert said his office only knew about the 2005 e-mails which, although unusual, did not indicate any sexual advances. Hastert said his staffers were following the wishes of the boy's family to avoid a public controversy by dropping the matter after Foley agreed to cease contact.

Looking back, the collection of incidents involving Foley and pages suggested more trouble than any one person saw at the time.

Michael Powichroski, vice president of the consulting firm Right Management, said so many staffers and members of Congress were involved that no single person had all the clues.

"There should have been a clear process for reporting and being sure there was a central point for collecting information," he said.

Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or 202 463-0575.