WASHINGTON—Rep. Mark Foley resigned from Congress Friday a day after the publication of overly friendly e-mails sent to a former underage male page and the discovery of a series of explicit instant messaging sessions with other boys.
And as the Florida Republican's personal and political life began to unravel, the resignation added to the burden for his party to maintain control of Congress in the pivotal November election.
Foley, who was chairman of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus and was active in child protection issues, sent a terse resignation letter to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. His office issued a brief statement, thanking his district for electing him to 12 years of public service.
"I am deeply sorry and I apologize for letting down my family and the people of Florida I have had the privilege to represent," he said, making no mention of the e-mails that he sent to a 16-year-old page, in which he asked the page to send a picture of himself and noted that another page was "in really great shape."
ABC News reported Friday that Foley participated in sexually explicit instant messages with teenage male pages. In one exchange, Foley wrote: "Do I make you a little horny?" In another, he wrote, "You in your boxers, too? . . . Well, strip down and get naked."
ABC reported receiving the more explicit messages from other pages after posting the August 2005 exchange of e-mails.
"When the congressman realized we had them, he resigned," ABC said.
The scandal spilled onto the floor of the House of Representatives in the waning hours before lawmakers recessed for the elections.
Democrats demanded a pre-election investigation into what Republican leaders knew about Foley's conduct with pages, when they knew it and what corrective action they took.
Republicans joined Democrats in a 409-0 vote to send the matter to the House's ethics panel but wouldn't commit to a 10-day deadline that Democrats sought, saying the matter was too important to rush.
The chairman of the House Page Board, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., released a statement saying he was made aware of the e-mail exchange in late 2005, investigated the matter and believed no impropriety had occurred. He said Foley told him he was a "mentor" to the page. Shimkus also said he and the House clerk told Foley to cease contact with the page anyhow, that Foley agreed to do so and that Shimkus heard no further complaints.
Shimkus said he now will investigate the matter anew: "It has become clear . . . Congressman Foley was not honest about his conduct."
Foley's abrupt resignation, which House members said came after GOP leadership demanded it, comes less than six weeks before the midterm congressional election and throws a wrench into Republican efforts to retain control of the House.
Democrats, who need to win 15 Republican seats to regain the House, were struggling to gain traction against the popular incumbent in the Republican-leaning district. Foley's campaign on Thursday had blamed the release of the e-mails on his Democratic opponent, Tim Mahoney.
A spokesman for Mahoney denied any role in publicizing the e-mails. Spokesman Eric Jotkoff said the campaign learned about the e-mails when a reporter called to ask about them. That was followed by a posting on the Web site Wonkette.com and on Thursday by ABC News, Jotkoff said.
Foley's name is likely to appear on the ballot, though Republicans weren't conceding that Friday. If his name does appear, any votes he receives would go to a candidate chosen by the Republican Party of Florida, but Republicans said it would be difficult to win with his name on the ballot.
"Holding the seat is the least of my concerns right now, but it'd be tough to hold that seat," said Rep. Adam Putnam, R- Fla., chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. "Look at the shame he brought on the institution. Look at what he did to these kids, if it's true. These kids are given the opportunity of a lifetime to come here and serve in government. It makes us all look bad; it makes the institution look bad."
By late Friday, Florida state Rep. Joe Negron, who ran for the seat in 2004 when Foley planned to run for the Senate and who has $1 million available from a campaign he dropped for state attorney general, had offered his candidacy.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who also had called for an investigation into the House's page program, said Foley's resignation was "the right thing."
"We want to make sure that our pages are safe," Hastert said.
A clerk read Foley's resignation letter on the House floor, and Republicans greeted it with some relief. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., said GOP leadership had "suggested to Foley it was the right thing to do," and she said Foley didn't hesitate.
As a lawmaker, Foley pushed for legislation to protect children from exploitation by adults over the Internet and for further restrictions of child pornography on the Web. In 2003, he led a charge to criticize a Tampa-area nudist camp that permitted underage campers to be naked.
According to the e-mails obtained by several news organizations, including the Miami Herald, the boy who received the e-mail sent them to a House staffer for Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., saying the exchange "freaked me out."
Foley's office on Thursday had called the release of the e-mails politically motivated and "an attempt at the worst kind of character assassination." They dismissed the e-mails as innocent replies to a thank-you letter given to Foley from a former page.
But by Friday, a group that Republicans have assailed for its attacks on GOP members called on the House ethics committee to investigate the matter.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington noted that the House censured two members for having sexual relationships with pages and frowned on a third for making sexual advances to a Peace Corps volunteer.
"The House of Representatives has the responsibility to protect teenagers who come to Congress to learn about the legislative process," the group's director wrote.
Questions about Foley's sexuality have dogged him in the past. In 2003, as a potential candidate for retiring Sen. Bob Graham's seat, he denounced rumors that he was gay and said it was no one's business if he was.
"Elected officials, even those who run for the United States Senate, must have some level of privacy," Foley said at the time.
He later took his name out of the running, citing a need to care for his ailing parents.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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