TOPICS > Politics

Republican Party Contends with Foley E-mails, Resignation

October 2, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: There is now a criminal investigation into former Republican Congressman Mark Foley’s sexually explicit electronic messages to former male congressional pages. Meanwhile, at the Capitol this afternoon, House Speaker Dennis Hastert emphatically denied that he or any other member of the leadership knew of the most explicit of those messages until ABC News reported them last week.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT (R-ILL.), Speaker of the House: The Republican leaders of the House did not have them. We have all said so and on the record.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those messages from 2003 contain references to sexual acts and body parts, and their release led to Foley’s immediate resignation from Congress on Friday.

Some Democrats believe GOP leaders may have had prior knowledge of the messages and covered up the matter to allow Foley to keep his seat through the midterm elections.

REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), Pennsylvania: It really makes me nervous that they looked like they tried to cover it up.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Hastert insisted Republican leaders knew only of e-mails Foley sent in the fall of 2005 to a 16-year-old former page, sponsored by Louisiana’s Rodney Alexander. That e-mail had been described by Alexander’s office as “over-friendly.”

When the scandal broke late last week, Hastert said he hadn’t heard of any e-mails, including that one.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: None of us are very happy about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But on Saturday, New York Republican Tom Reynolds said he had told Hastert about Foley’s 2005 e-mail months ago, after being notified by Alexander. Said Reynolds, “I told the speaker of the conversation Mr. Alexander had with me.”

In response, Hastert’s office acknowledged that some of his aides knew last year that Foley had been warned to cease contact with the boy.

At the White House today, reporters peppered spokesman Tony Snow with questions about the matter, but Snow left it to Hastert to explain.

TONY SNOW, White House Press Secretary: As far as answering particular questions about who knew what, when, or what they knew, or how they’re going to deal with that, I’ll refer those questions to the speaker.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Hastert, along with Republican Congressman John Shimkus, who oversees the page program, took no questions and immediately left after making their statements.

Two sets of messages

Ben Pershing
Roll Call
So it got to the attention of Mr. Alexander's staff. ... I think they saw that they could be inappropriate, but there was nothing sexually explicit in those messages. There was nothing that jumped right out as being wrong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, Mark Foley's nameplate has been removed from the office door in the Cannon Office Building, and his Web site has been shut down.

And for more on this story, we turn to Ben Pershing, senior editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

Ben, help us distinguish the two sets of messages here. There's the very lurid instant messages from 2003.

BEN PERSHING, Senior Editor, Roll Call: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in 2005, there are these other e-mails that some members of Congress acknowledged knowing about. Now, what happened at that time?

BEN PERSHING: Well, the 2005 messages are kind of what got this whole story going. There was a set of e-mails from Congressman Foley to a former page from Louisiana. And that Page forwarded the messages to someone he knew in Congressman Rodney Alexander's office. Mr. Alexander is the congressman from Louisiana.

So it got to the attention of Mr. Alexander's staff. They looked at them, weren't quite sure what to make of them. I think they saw that they could be inappropriate, but there was nothing sexually explicit in those messages. There was nothing that jumped right out as being wrong.

And Mr. Alexander's staff shared those messages with the speaker of the House's staff. And that's where we get into the controversy now.

The speaker's staff looked at the messages, weren't quite sure what to make of them either. They brought in the clerk of the House, who oversees the House page program. They brought in Congressman John Shimkus from Illinois, who is the chairman of the page board, and the two of them went to Congressman Foley just with those messages, not with any of the more sexual ones we heard about later, but just with that original set of 2005 messages, and asked Foley what the issue was with them.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. So then the more explicit 2003 messages come out. Those were reported by ABC News last week. Do we know how ABC got hold of those?

BEN PERSHING: I haven't seen a definitive answer to that. I do believe I read on the ABC News Web site that, after they posted their original story on Thursday about the 2005 e-mails, that they were inundated with tips and messages from former pages, from other people with ideas, and, from my understanding, is that -- and that's how they got this second set of more explicit messages.

Who knew what when

Ben Pershing
Roll Call
The real question is, despite who knew or didn't know, did they do the right thing when they handled this the first time around?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. So now you put these together, and you have a whole lot of finger-pointing up on the Hill.

BEN PERSHING: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Speaker Hastert would not take questions today. What questions do you have about who knew what, when?

BEN PERSHING: Oh, there are a lot of questions at this point. We haven't determined for sure exactly which members of leadership knew about it. We actually don't know for sure even if Speaker Hastert himself knew about it.

His staff has admitted knowing. A fellow leader, Tom Reynolds from New York, has said he told Hastert about it, but Hastert says he doesn't recall that conversation. And beyond that, the real question is, despite who knew or didn't know, did they do the right thing when they handled this the first time around?

You know, they went to Foley. He denied anything inappropriate. They told him, "Well, stay away from this particular page." And then they left it at that. And I think a lot of people will be asking now: Shouldn't they have gone further? Shouldn't they have investigated further? And shouldn't they have told the Democrats in the House about this?

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, some former pages are speaking out now about Mr. Foley. Tell us more about him, his personal and professional career.

BEN PERSHING: Well, he's been in the House over a decade. He's from south Florida, from the Palm Beach area. He's very telegenic. I think a lot of people know him well as somebody who's on television quite a lot, always in the press and likes the spotlight.

I believe I read recently that he enjoyed getting to the State of the Union speeches as early as possible so that he could get a good seat along the aisle and have his picture taken shaking hands with the president. He's a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which is very important, establishing tax and trade policy, raised a lot of money.

And, you know, as we've discovered now, unfortunately, he was also a leading voice on issues of protecting children on the Internet. He wrote laws regarding online sexual predators. He was co-chairman of a caucus that dealt with missing and exploited children. And, obviously, there's a lot of sad irony there now.

FBI and congressional probes

Ben Pershing
Roll Call
Theoretically, one could argue that, if somebody has evidence that a crime has been committed and withholds it, then they may be liable under the law. But I think we're a long way from saying anything like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the FBI is going to look at this. The state of Florida is going to look at this. What exactly will they be looking at? What potential laws here might have been broken?

BEN PERSHING: I mean, at the very least, the FBI will look at whether Foley himself broke any laws. It's not clear at this point how many pages there were that Foley had contact with. It's not clear if it was just electronic messages or if he actually had any physical contact with any of them.

And if it was just electronic messages, then the question becomes: How old were these pages? What's the age of consent in the places where they were?

And there may be laws -- I'm not a legal expert -- but there may be laws against sending obscene messages over the Internet across state lines. And those are all the issues the FBI is going to look at, just with regards to Mr. Foley.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about in Congress itself? Is there any more action, Ethics Committee or otherwise, to look at all this?

BEN PERSHING: Well, the speaker has asked the FBI to look at the issue of who in Congress knew what and when they knew it. Now, whether anybody in Congress, whether it's a member or a staffer, could actually be charged with breaking any law is unclear.

Theoretically, one could argue that, if somebody has evidence that a crime has been committed and withholds it, then they may be liable under the law. But I think we're a long way from saying anything like that. But that's just the FBI.

The Ethics Committee in the House is in charge of probing the conduct of members of Congress. And specifically, there have been times in the past where the Ethics Committee has charged that members or staff have brought dishonor upon the House, not violated any rules, but simply discredited the House as an institution. And this is a case where the Ethics Committee could find that.

The midterm election

Ben Pershing
Roll Call
The only questions anybody had this weekend and today are about the Foley case. So, you know, yet another opportunity Republicans might have had to try to turn the tide in their favor, and they lost it now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, today in Florida, Mr. Foley announced that he was going into a rehabilitation program for alcoholism.

BEN PERSHING: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Also, Florida Republicans announced a replacement candidate for him. Now, his name stays on the ballot, right?

BEN PERSHING: That's correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how is that going to work? What's the situation in that particular race?

BEN PERSHING: It's very unusual. Every state has different rules about when someone can come off the ballot and when they can't. And in this case, it's too late for Foley's name to come off the ballot. But under Florida law, the state party can pick what they call a "designee," and that person will get any votes that Foley gets on Election Day.

So what Republicans are faced with now is a strange situation where they have to tell voters, "Go ahead and vote for Mark Foley, who's been accused of all these awful things, but don't worry, because he's not actually the one getting the votes." And there's really only a month to educate the voters in the district that this is the situation. And, frankly, at this point, I just don't know if they have time to pull that off.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and given how close we are to the national election, what are people on the Hill telling you about the potential impact of all this? What are they worried about? Or how are they responding, both parties?

BEN PERSHING: Well, I mean, at the very least, House Republicans have yet another seat they have to defend. And they were already on defense all over the country.

It also took Republicans way off their message last week. You remember, they finished up work Friday and Saturday, and they had a lot of bills that they completed. And they wanted the message to be that they were accomplishing the people's work, they were getting good bills signed into law.

And instead the only questions anybody had this weekend and today are about the Foley case. So, you know, yet another opportunity Republicans might have had to try to turn the tide in their favor, and they lost it now.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Ben Pershing of Roll Call, thanks very much.

BEN PERSHING: Thank you.