House Speaker Dennis Hastert on Monday defended his office's handling of questions raised about Rep. Mark Foley last year, saying the parents of a former male page were concerned about an e-mail Foley sent their son but didn't want the matter pursued.
Hastert said neither he nor other GOP leaders were aware until last Friday of far more lurid computer exchanges two years earlier between the Florida Republican and another page.
Hastert, R-Ill., acknowledged that Foley's 2005 e-mail to a Louisiana boy seeking a photograph raised a "red flag" with the Louisiana congressman who sponsored the page, but said his staff aides and Rep. John Shimkus, another Illinois Republican who chairs a board of House members who oversee the page program, did not know the contents.
Rep. Tom Reynolds, the House GOP campaign chairman, said he told Hastert in the spring of this year about the questionable e-mail. Hastert says he does not recall the conversation but does not dispute Reynolds' account.
Shimkus, appearing with Hastert on Monday, said new measures would be implemented to keep pages safe, including a toll-free hotline for pages, former pages and their families to confidentially report any incidents.
Democrats protested that those decisions should be made by the bipartisan page board.
"Once again, the House Republican leadership is following the same pattern of unilateral decision-making that caused this problem in the first place," said Rep. Dale Kildee of Michigan, longtime Democratic member of the board.
Hastert's media offensive came as the burgeoning scandal entered its fourth day, souring the outlook for Republicans in the November elections and raising questions about the judgment of senior House officials who handled the controversy. GOP leaders scheduled a late-afternoon conference call on the matter with rank-and-file Republicans.
Shimkus and the House clerk called Foley last fall and told him to cut off all communication with the former page. Only after ABC News reported the 2005 e-mail late last week did the more lurid material surface, as pages forwarded further messages to ABC.
The network reported instant messages between Foley and a San Diego teenager, who suggested he was uncomfortable in an exchange discussing dinner plans for when the boy was to come to Washington.
"and then what happens," Foley messaged at one point.
"I have the feeling that you are fishing here ... im not sure what I would be comfortable with ... well see," the teen replied.
Democrats hammered at GOP leaders' handling of the Foley subject as an internal party matter instead of bringing it to the attention of the page board or the House Ethics Committee.
"Republican Leaders admitted to knowing about Mr. Foley's abhorrent behavior for six months to a year and failed to protect the children in their trust," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "Republican Leaders must be investigated by the Ethics Committee and immediately questioned under oath."
The FBI has begun an inquiry into Foley's computer contact with pages, and Hastert wrote a letter to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush asking for an investigation into whether state laws were broken.
Meanwhile, Florida newspapers — who were leaked copies of the e-mail with the Louisiana boy last year — defended their decision not to run stories. Both The St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald were given copies of the e-mail, as were other news organizations, including Fox News.
"Our decision at the time was ... that because the language was not sexually explicit and was subject to interpretation, from innocuous to 'sick,' as the page characterized it, to be cautious," said Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Herald. "Given the potentially devastating impact that a false suggestion of pedophilia could have on anyone, not to mention a congressman known to be gay, and lacking any corroborating information, we chose not to do a story."
Hastert called on any person who was aware of the 2003 instant messages to speak to law enforcement authorities. He said no Republican leader in Congress was aware of those exchanges until Friday, when ABC News reported it had questioned Foley about them.
A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said it had obtained copies of Foley's e-mails to the 16-year-old former page in late July and immediately gave them to the FBI.
"They (the e-mails) should have raised a red flag over at the FBI," said Melanie Sloan, the group's executive director and a former prosecutor specializing in sex crimes. The group on Monday asked the Justice Department's inspector general to investigate why Foley's e-mails were not pursued.
Asked about the preliminary inquiry under way at the FBI into Foley's actions, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told reporters Monday afternoon, "We're just beginning to look at it right now. I haven't received a report."
The Justice Department sent Hastert a brief letter that said the FBI "is conducting a preliminary investigation into this matter and will work closely with the department's prosecutors to determine whether any violations of federal law have occurred."
The congressional page program has traditionally been a starting point for young people interested in making a career of politics.
There currently are 72 House pages, 48 selected by Republicans and 24 by Democrats, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. The Senate breakdown is 30 pages, 18 chosen by Republicans and 12 by Democrats.
Leadership officials had been aware since last year of the 2005 e-mail exchange, which they said was "over friendly" but did not include overtly sexual references. They said they did not follow up other than to instruct Foley to not communicate with the Louisiana page.
But Sloan of the CREW watchdog group said that while the 2005 e-mail was not sexually explicit — asking about the boy's birthday and progress in school and requesting a photograph — "they set off alarm bells for me."
"These are strategies pedophiles often use to draw in their" targets, said Sloan in a conference call with reporters.
Foley, 52, checked into an alcohol rehabilitation center over the weekend, his attorney said Monday. In a statement, Foley said, "I strongly believe that I'm an alcoholic and have accepted the need for immediate treatment for alcoholism and other behavioral problems."
Florida Republicans on Monday chose a member of the state Legislature, Rep. Joe Negron, to replace Foley as the party's candidate for the state's 16th congressional district, which covers an area north and west of Palm Beach.
Democrat Tim Mahoney said Monday that his campaign learned about the Foley e-mails through a reporter and wasn't sure what to believe until actually seeing them.
"There was information that obviously had been out and about. It had to be one of the biggest open secrets in Washington D.C."
White House spokesman Tony Snow attempted to deflect the political repercussions, saying, "The House has to clean up the mess, to the extent there is a mess."
"This does not affect every Republican in the United States of America, just as bad behavior on Democrats' part is not a reflection on the entire party," Snow said.