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House Republicans Broke No Rules in Their Handling of Foley Scandal

December 8, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Florida Congressman Mark Foley resigned from the House of Representatives in late September following news reports of suggestive e-mails and sexually explicit instant messages he sent to former pages.

Today, the House Ethics Committee released the report of its investigation into the matter. Charles Babington of the Washington Post joins us with the committee’s findings.

Charles, first of all, we know there are criminal investigations under way. Just how thorough was this congressional inquiry?

CHARLES BABINGTON, Washington Post: Well, Judy, it sounds like it was pretty thorough. I mean, here’s the report; it’s quite a lot to read.

What’s, I guess, most interesting in their findings is they find a lot of fault with a lot of different people. They said that their reactions to various bits of information about Mark Foley over a number of years were not the proper type of response. They didn’t react in the way that they should have.

But at the end, they didn’t find that anyone did anything, either a member of Congress or a staffer, anything that deserves any type of punitive action. So, in a way, they’re going to close this rather thorough report without taking any action against any of the people involved.

Who knew what and when

JUDY WOODRUFF: How long ago did they say someone knew that this was going on?

CHARLES BABINGTON: Well, in some ways, it's quite remarkable. When Foley was elected to Congress in November of 1994, and as early as 1995, he had just arrived here, there were some concerns about people who ran the page program that he was showing too much attention to the pages. These are the teenagers who come to work in Congress for a year from all over the country.

So as early as that, there were kind of warnings going around: Be careful for this guy, watch out for him. And yet what the Ethics Committee found fault with was, as I said, what these people really should have done was taken the problem either to Foley directly or to somebody in Congress to deal with him, instead of warning the pages to be careful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So who knew? Who were the individuals in a position of responsibility who knew what was going on?

CHARLES BABINGTON: Well, and, Judy, one thing that's important is sort of different bits of information were known at different times. But certainly Jeff Trandahl, who sort of oversaw the page program, knew there was a problem, and he did take action. He did alert his superiors and asked at times for them to intervene.

Probably the most important finding was that top aides to Speaker Hastert -- I'm talking about his very top aides -- did know that there were some concerns, and perhaps serious concerns, about Foley, and they did know in the past year about the inappropriate -- not the explicit e-mail, but the inappropriate e-mail to the Louisiana boy that did raise concerns.

And what the Ethics Committee found was that any number of these individuals should have done more than they did.

The credibility of the House

JUDY WOODRUFF: "Should have done more," is that under House rules, or just under what would have been appropriate under the circumstances?

CHARLES BABINGTON: The House rule is that any member and staff has to always behave in a way that reflects credibly upon the House; that's sort of the magic term.

And so, by that standard, what the report basically says is, just by general terms, it would have been better if they had done other things, if they had done more, but they didn't violate this key phrase. And that's really upset some of the watchdog groups.

Fred Wertheimer, from Democracy 21, for example, says it's just absurd to have these findings and say that they did not amount to reflecting in a not credible way upon the House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is -- I mean, for some to look at this, it is a little difficult to compute, to say that they should have done more, and yet we're not going to say that anybody really did anything wrong here, and we're not going to take any action.

CHARLES BABINGTON: Right. What the members of the Ethics Committee emphasized today was that hindsight is easier than foresight, and they didn't want to come down too hard on people with the benefit of hindsight in saying, you know, well, obviously, you should have done this or that.

So they tried to walk this fine line between saying, you know, "This was not the best way, this thing. It definitely could have been handled better." And yet, in the end, it didn't rise to the point that they thought some action should be taken.

Long-term effects of the report

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about Speaker Hastert?

CHARLES BABINGTON: Well, Speaker Hastert put out a statement today just basically saying, "I'm glad this is over. We said all along, you know, we didn't do anything that would, you know, result in some type of action taken against us."

I must say, it did not show any remorse or second thoughts. You know, Judy, this would have been much more explosive if the Republicans had held the House in the election last week and that if he were returning as speaker. Now, he's a member of the minority, and it takes a lot of the wind out of the impact of this report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Charles Babington, in reading this, do you come away with a sense of what would happen now and going forward if another member of Congress were to do something like what Mark Foley did? What actions would be taken or not taken?

CHARLES BABINGTON: Well, it's a good question. You might on the one hand say, if the Ethics Committee felt no action has to be taken, maybe no lessons are learned.

One person we talked to today was Dale Kildee, who's a Democratic member of the page board that oversaw the board, and he said he thought some good would come of this, that he felt that everybody will look at this, feel chastened, and feel like, "You know, we really didn't respond to this in the way we should have," to look out for the interests of these teenagers first, and people will be more alert and more on their toes from now on.

House members 'willfully ignorant'

JUDY WOODRUFF: I did pick up one line I want to ask you about, a line in the report where they say they found a pattern of conduct on the part of many individuals to, quote, "remain willfully ignorant of the potential consequences of Foley's conduct."

CHARLES BABINGTON: Yes, that's right, Judy. What they said over and over, it was to sort of minimize the impact, try to make the least of it instead of, you know, erring on the side of doing too much.

And I think the general theme that runs through this is that the general reaction of a number of members and staffers, especially to Hastert, was to sort minimize the damage, the political damage, to sort of keep things under wraps.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the criminal investigations will continue, both for Congressman Foley -- former Congressman Foley and for Congressman Jim Kolbe, as well. Is that right?

CHARLES BABINGTON: That's right. That's on a totally different track, and really separate from this House investigation by the Ethics Committee.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Charles Babington of the Washington Post, we thank you very much.

CHARLES BABINGTON: Thank you.