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Roles of gay staffers raise suspicions in Foley scandal

Some accuse aides of not doing enough, but other s say they did more than anyone else.

Published October 23, 2006

[AP Photo]
The House race in Arizona for a seat left open by retiring moderate GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe, who is openly gay, has drawn national money and interest.

WASHINGTON - One of the inescapable facts of the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley is that three key people who had some of the earliest clues about the congressman's advances toward teenage boys are, like Foley, gay.

Jim Kolbe, a Republican congressman from Arizona, received a complaint from a former page in 2001 or 2002 that Foley had sent the boy e-mails that made him uncomfortable. Jeff Trandahl, the House clerk in charge of the page program, was so concerned about Foley's behavior several years ago that he reported it to Kirk Fordham, Foley's chief of staff.

Kolbe, Trandahl and Fordham are openly gay.

The question of who knew what, and when, has roiled the uneasy peace between the Republican Party and its cadre of gay staffers, who don't welcome the spotlight. It also has raised the question: Were Kolbe, Fordham and Trandahl trying to downplay the Foley issue to protect a fellow gay Republican?

Some conservative leaders, seemingly surprised by the number of gay operatives in their favorite political party, have questioned whether the three men went so far as to try to cover up the scandal.

"We don't know that, but it certainly is one possibility, among others," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a politically influential Christian advocacy group. "I think, hopefully, the investigation by the U.S. House ethics committee will answer it."

Craig Crawford, a columnist for Congressional Quarterly who is openly gay, said Republicans at every level failed to push for answers, but the gay staffers had some of the earliest clues.

"Maybe you had gay Republicans protecting other gay Republicans," said Crawford. "They are giving the appearance of a gay mafia protecting one of their own."

Gay political activists and others say that's not the case. They say Fordham, Trandahl and Kolbe did more than others to alert people about Foley, who resigned from Congress Sept. 29 after the disclosure of sexually explicit messages he sent to a former page.

"Mistakes were made by a lot of people. Some of them were gay, some of them were straight, but sexual orientation was sort of irrelevant to what happened," said Patrick Sammon, executive vice president of the national Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group.

"And it was the gay people involved who were trying to do something about his behavior."

Chuck Wolfe, president of the Victory Fund, a gay and lesbian political action committee, agreed.

"I don't buy into this whole conspiracy thing," Wolfe said. "It appears so far that it wasn't only the gay people who knew something was amiss. But it appears that the gay people tried to do something about it."

A 'gutsy' move

The activities of the three are under scrutiny because they knew of reports about Foley's behavior as far back as 2001, four years before House Republican leaders have said they learned of Foley's e-mails to a Louisiana boy.

Kolbe said that after he got the initial complaint from a page in 2001 or 2002, his staff passed it to Foley's office and to Trandahl. Kolbe said he believed the matter was resolved because he heard no further complaints.

Colleagues say Kolbe, the only openly gay Republican in the House of Representatives, was not close to Foley. He regarded the Florida Republican as a publicity hound and was frustrated that Foley would not reveal his homosexuality, which was an open secret in Washington.

It's unclear whether Kolbe's complaint was ever acknowledged by Foley's and Trandahl's offices, and Kolbe's statement indicates he did not follow through to make sure it was. He has declined to elaborate.

Fordham, who was Foley's chief of staff until late 2003, had many reasons to protect Foley, a Fort Pierce Republican. He was Foley's closest political adviser, the manager of his congressional office and a longtime friend.

Yet Fordham has said he did something highly unusual for a chief of staff: He reported his boss' behavior to the Republican leadership.

In 2002 or 2003, he said, he told House Speaker Dennis Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, about the congressman's overly friendly behavior with pages, and he urged Palmer to tell Foley to stop.

Jonathan Rauch, guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, described that as a "gutsy" move.

"How many of us would turn and blow the whistle on our boss in that situation?"

Palmer has denied the conversation occurred. He has said, "What Kirk Fordham said did not happen."

'No coverup'

Trandahl, the House clerk who oversaw the page program, has not spoken publicly about the case, though he did testify in private last week before the House ethics committee. He and his attorney did not return telephone calls.

But accounts from people involved in the matter say Trandahl called Fordham at least three times to urge him to talk with Foley about his overly friendly behavior with pages, as well as an incident in which Foley reportedly showed up drunk at the dormitory where teenage pages live. It is not clear whether Trandahl also alerted anyone in the Republican leadership.

Trandahl has been the most elusive figure in the scandal. Friends describe him as a well-organized, by-the-book administrator who was protective of the pages, who spend a semester in Washington to work on Capitol Hill. He was a friend of Fordham's but was not close to Foley.

Rauch, who is openly gay, blamed Foley for creating the appearance of a conspiracy.

"It's completely predictable that a lot of people are going to look at this situation and see a gay conspiracy - whether or not there was one," he said. "Foley has done great damage to gay Americans with what he has done here."

Rauch said the actions of Kolbe, Fordham and Trandahl make it "absolutely clear there was no coverup."

However, Rauch said, it's not clear yet whether they did enough.

Although the three had early clues, they may not have been passed to House Republican leaders, who say they did not know about Foley's sexual messages with former pages until the day he resigned.

Conservative concerns

The Foley scandal is unfolding at a time when some conservatives are questioning the Republican commitment to their "traditional" values because of the failure of Congress again to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage and other items at the top of the evangelical agenda.

"There are definitely the antigay groups that are trying to use this situation to score points," said Sammon of the Log Cabin Republicans. "What happened here is a personal scandal and a political scandal, and I don't think it should be used to denigrate gay America."

This month, as first lady Laura Bush looked on, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice swore in Dr. Mark Dybul, an openly gay man, to become the U.S. Global AIDS coordinator.

Rice also recognized his partner and his partner's mom, whom she referred to as Dybul's "mother-in-law."

Episodes like that and revelations about the prevalence of gay Republican staffers on Capitol Hill have shaken conservatives. As clerk of the House, Trandahl wielded enormous influence over the workings of the Capitol, while Fordham until recently was chief of staff to Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"This raises yet another plausible question for values voters: Has the social agenda of the GOP been stalled by homosexual members and or staffers?" Perkins, the Family Research Council president, asked in a recent letter to supporters. "When we look over events of this Congress, we have to wonder."

Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at or (202) 463-0575.

[Last modified October 23, 2006, 05:29:07]

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