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House Starts Probe into Leadership Handling of Foley E-mails

October 5, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: First up, the Mark Foley scandal still reverberating one week after it surfaced. Speaker Hastert got a round of applause from local supporters as he walked to the microphones in front of his district headquarters this afternoon.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT (R-IL), Speaker of the House: Well, thank you very much.

RAY SUAREZ: Hastert did not acknowledge the calls from some Republicans that he resign over his handling of former Congressman Foley’s behavior. In fact, Hastert said he expects to be re-elected to his House seat and as speaker. He did, however, apologize.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: I’m deeply sorry that this has happened. And the bottom line is that we’re taking responsibility, because ultimately, as someone has said in Washington before, the buck stops here.

RAY SUAREZ: News of Foley’s sexually explicit instant message exchanges with male former pages emerged last Friday. The Florida Republican quickly resigned, but the revelations brought new scrutiny to the relationship between members and the high school-aged pages who work for the House and Senate.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: We will do everything possible to make the program safe for the kids while they’re in our care in Washington, D.C.

Hastert faces criticism

RAY SUAREZ: Hastert has faced a barrage of criticism for failing to take stronger action after he was first warned about Foley's behavior. Several Republicans have contradicted the speaker's statements as to specifically when he first found out about Foley's 2005 e-mail exchange with a 16-year-old page, one that was described as "over friendly." Former Foley aide Kirk Fordham told the Associated Press yesterday that over three years ago he had more than one conversation with senior staff at the highest level of the House of Representatives asking them to intervene. Fordham served as New York Republican Thomas Reynolds' chief of staff until yesterday, when he resigned amid reports that he had covered up misdeeds by the Florida congressman. Hastert conceded this afternoon that, in hindsight, things could have been handled differently.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: Could we have done it better? Could the Page Board have handled it better? In retrospect, probably, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: His performance was embraced by some of the local residents on hand and questioned by others.

DON JOHNSON, Hastert Supporter: I take him at his word. I think he's a pretty straight guy. You know, like I say, he's a guy from around here. He's our congressman. And, you know, I generally think he's a pretty decent guy.

JOHN WAJLER, Hastert Critic: I think he should resign. I think if he knew two years ago what was happening, he should have investigated it further. And obviously he didn't, and it led to other things happening.

Bipartisan investigation

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, at the Capitol in Washington, the Ethics Committee was already at work. Its 10 members, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, were called to Washington this morning to formally open their inquiry into the Mark Foley affair. After three hours of discussions, Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, a Washington State Republican, held a press conference flanked by members of the committee.

REP. DOC HASTINGS (R), Washington: Our new investigative subcommittee met for the first time and unanimously approved nearly four dozen subpoenas for documents and testimony. Many of the individuals we plan to talk to are members, officers and staffs of the House.

RAY SUAREZ: Hastings would not comment on whether they had subpoenaed Hastert or Foley. But Ranking Member Howard Berman, Democrat of California, said the investigation will focus generally on Congress's handling of the matter, not on Foley's specific actions.

REP. HOWARD BERMAN (D), California: At this point, what we're launching is an investigation into this whole affair without a specific target. But because Mark Foley has left the Congress, we don't have the authority to discipline him in any way. The reason what happened is relevant is because there are people now who have responsibilities, and we're gathering the facts, which are related to his conduct, to make judgments.

RAY SUAREZ: Berman said he expects the committee to finish its investigation in weeks, not months.

Committee behavior

RAY SUAREZ: Joining us now is Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. He's also co-author of a recent book, "The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track." Norm, is it unusual for a committee like this one to come back from recess, appear as a group, and roll out a new investigation?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: It's virtually unprecedented, Ray. To see the Ethics Committee, which has been an extremely secretive committee, which almost never talks about what it does, unless and until it actually releases a recommendation, out there in front of the cameras talking about the specifics of what they're doing on a member, and to do it having come back during a recess, and saying that they're going to finish an investigation in weeks, where normally even trivial things take many, many months, is something we haven't seen before.

RAY SUAREZ: And in this case, looking into the activities of a man who is a former member of the body.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Looking into the activities of a former member, but also looking into the activities of the speaker. And this is the third time that the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which was created just under 40 years ago, the third time they have looked at the activities of a speaker. They did it for Speaker Jim Wright in 1989; they did it with Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995. This is the first time, however, that they appear to be doing it without some kind of outside counsel representing them.

Past turbulence

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this is a committee that historically has been under a microscope, been considered very controversial. Talk about what they are empowered to do. Are they an investigative body? Who can be investigated by the House Ethics Committee?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It is, generally speaking, a passive and reactive committee, Ray. It is supposed to be nonpartisan, or at least bipartisan, but particularly in the last 15 years or so, where in the past it used to be that news organizations or outside groups could trigger an investigation by coming in with some kind of evidence, no longer can that happen. There are two ways that an investigation moves forward by the Ethics Committee. One is if a member formally brings a complaint against another member, which is extremely rare in recent years, because there's been a kind of bipartisan truce that each side would not take on the other. And the other is they can do it independently if they think there's a problem. That is also a rare thing. They usually do not go out there proactively investigating when there's some kind of a rumor of a problem. They do it now, as we see, when there's a public explosion.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, as you've alluded to earlier in your remarks, there has been some turbulence recently on this committee. Is it operating more smoothly now?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It is a little bit, because now you've got a chairman and ranking member who are working together a little bit better. Keep in mind that Doc Hastings, the chairman of the committee, was installed at the beginning of this Congress after Speaker Hastert fired the previous chairman, conservative Republican from Colorado named Joel Hefley, and two Republican members, basically because they had investigated and issued rebukes against Tom DeLay. Doc Hastings started in a very rocky fashion. He insisted on appointing as a staff director a partisan figure for the first time. The then-ranking Democrat Alan Mollohan said he wouldn't cooperate. The committee was basically moribund.

When Mollohan had his own ethics issue and withdrew, Howard Berman, a very highly respected member, a Democrat who's been in the past the ranking member of the committee, came on. Now they're working together pretty smoothly. But this is going to be a very tricky operation, and they've got to try and look at members and staff who are still there and who presumably are going to be there not just at the end of this Congress, when it expires on January 3rd, but thereafter. They probably can't get all of this done in time, and that's not an easy thing to do, especially in a short period of time, with credibility for the public.

RAY SUAREZ: Norm Ornstein of AEI, thanks a lot for being with us.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You bet, Ray.