WASHINGTON—A top House Republican aide charged Wednesday that he warned senior aides to House Speaker Dennis Hastert as far back as 2003 that former Rep. Mark Foley's behavior toward underage congressional pages could be a problem.
Hastert has said that his aides were first warned about Foley in fall 2005, and then only with ambiguous evidence. Foley resigned last Friday after evidence became public that he'd exchanged dozens of sexually explicit emails with former male congressional pages for years, triggering a storm of public outrage that House Republican leaders hadn't done more sooner to protect the pages from a sexual predator in Congress.
Kirk Fordham, who was Foley's chief of staff for a decade before holding the same post for Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., said he'd told Hastert's aides at least three years ago.
Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, flatly rejected Fordham's claim: "What Kirk Fordham said did not happen."
Nevertheless, Fordham's swipe at Hastert adds to the pressure on Hastert and other top House GOP leaders, who are struggling to defend their handling of Foley five weeks before congressional elections. Some Republicans locked in re-election contests are distancing themselves from their leader.
On Wednesday, Rep. Ron Lewis, R-Ky., asked Hastert to cancel his planned appearance Oct. 10 at a fundraiser on his behalf. "It's not intended to be a condemnation of Speaker Hastert," said Lewis campaign spokesman Michael Dodge. "But the congressman feels there are investigations, there are questions about who in leadership knew what and when. While that is pending, we saw it wasn't very prudent to bring him to the district."
Some leading conservative opinion leaders are turning against House Republican leaders. The Washington Times, a newspaper in the nation's capital influential with conservatives, demanded Tuesday that Hastert resign. And the editor of the National Review, a longstanding conservative opinion magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr., denounced the House Republican leadership online Wednesday.
"The fundamental problem congressional Republicans are experiencing now is that they have almost no moral capital left after the last two years. Again and again, when given the choice to reform their practices or do little or nothing, they always picked the latter," wrote editor Rich Lowry. "Well, now . . . people feel confirmed in what they always suspected about this Congress—that it is unable to police its own practices and is full of people who don't follow the same rules as the rest of us. This is deadly."
President Bush and many Republican House members have defended Hastert against pressure to resign, but Fordham's allegation threatened to erode that support.
In a statement released by his lawyer, Fordham sought to counter accusations that he'd tried to protect Foley by preventing an investigation into his behavior with pages.
In fact, Fordham said, he had "more than one conversation with senior staff at the highest levels of the House of Representatives asking them to intervene when I was informed of Mr. Foley's inappropriate behavior.
"Rather than trying to shift the blame on me, those who are employed by these House leaders should acknowledge what they know about their action or inaction in response to the information they knew about Mr. Foley prior to 2005," Fordham said.
Fordham's attorney, Timothy Heaphy, said Fordham alerted top GOP leaders to what Fordham called "Foley's inappropriate activities" while he was still Foley's chief of staff. He left that job in January 2004.
Heaphy wouldn't say what behavior led Fordham to warn others about his boss.
Fordham said he would "fully cooperate" with the FBI and the House Ethics Committee—officially the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct—which will meet Thursday morning in closed session to begin looking into the scandal.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued a statement demanding that House Republican leaders be questioned about their roles under oath.
"Mr. Fordham's statement is even more evidence that Republican leaders chose to put partisan politics above protecting the children in their trust," she said.
Republican leaders have said they were first warned about Foley in late 2005, when the parents of a former page from Louisiana alerted their congressman, Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., that Foley had sent their son an e-mail that the boy said "freaked him out." The e-mail inquired about his birthday and asked him to e-mail Foley a photo of himself.
Alexander's complaint was referred to the head of the House Page Board, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. He says he questioned Foley, who professed innocent motives and promised to cease contact with the young man. House Republican leaders took no further action.
Foley resigned Friday after separate, sexually explicit instant messages to at least two former pages dating to 2003 were disclosed by ABC News. Republican leaders said they'd never seen those messages.
In resigning, Fordham severed the clearest link between Foley and Reynolds, who heads the National Republican Campaign Committee, which helps Republicans seeking election to the House.
"I had no discussion with Kirk Fordham on this, whatsoever," Reynolds said earlier this week. At campaign stops through his northern New York district this week, Reynolds has had to address the issue constantly. On Wednesday Laura Bush campaigned with him.
Despite his reservations about Foley, Fordham helped Foley deal with fallout over the e-mails late last week, the Palm Beach Post reported. ABC reported Wednesday that Fordham last week tried to persuade the news network not to publish the instant messages.
Fordham's lawyer said Fordham helped Foley as "a friend, as an adviser, very much acting on his own."
Meanwhile, Washington interim U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor sent a letter to the counsel for the House of Representatives asking to preserve records from Foley's office. The counsel's office didn't return repeated calls.
The FBI announced Sunday that it was launching a "preliminary" inquiry after the more explicit instant messages were publicized. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington will decide whether to prosecute.
(Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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