WASHINGTON – House Speaker Dennis Hastert requested Sunday that the Justice Department conduct an investigation into former Rep. Mark Foley's electronic messages to teenage boys — a lurid scandal that has put House Republicans in political peril.
"As Speaker of the House, I hereby request that the Department of Justice conduct an investigation of Mr. Foley's conduct with current and former House pages to determine to what extent any of his actions violated federal law," Hastert, R-Ill., wrote in a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The FBI is also examining Foley's e-mail exchanges with teenagers to determine if they violated federal law, an agency spokesman said.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the FBI is "conducting an assessment to see if there's been a violation of federal law." He had no further comment.
The White House and Democratic leaders in Congress called Sunday for a criminal probe. White House counselor Dan Bartlett called the allegations against Foley shocking, but said President Bush hadn't learned of Foley's inappropriate e-mails to a 16-year-old boy and instant messages to other boys before the news broke last week.
"There is going to be, I'm sure, a criminal investigation into the particulars of this case," Bartlett said. "We need to make sure that the page system is one in which children come up here and can work and make sure that they are protected."
Foley, R-Fla., quit Congress on Friday after the disclosure of the e-mails he sent to a former congressional page and sexually suggestive instant messages he sent to other high school pages.
A law enforcement official, who asked for anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said agents from the FBI's cyber division are looking into the text of some of the messages and checking to see how many e-mails were sent and how many computers were used. They are also looking to see if some of the teens who were sent messages will cooperate with the probe.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called the Foley case "repugnant, but equally as bad is the possibility that Republican leaders in the House of Representatives knew there was a problem and ignored it to preserve a congressional seat this election year."
Reid said the case should be handled outside Congress.
"Under laws that Congressman Foley helped write, soliciting sex from a minor online is a federal crime," Reid said. "The alleged crimes here are far outside the scope of any congressional committee, and the attorney general should open a full-scale investigation immediately."
In his letter to Gonzales on Sunday, Hastert asked the Justice Department to investigate "who had specific knowledge of the content of any sexually explicit communications between Mr. Foley and any former or current House pages and what actions such individuals took, if any, to provide them to law enforcement."
The scope of the investigation, Hastert wrote, should include "any and all individuals who may have been aware of this matter — be they members of Congress, employees of the House of Representatives or anyone outside the Congress."
Hastert also sent a letter to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Sunday requesting that he "direct the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct an investigation of Mr. Foley's conduct with current and former House pages."
Hastert maintained at first that he had learned only last week about the e-mails. But Rep. Thomas Reynolds, head of the House Republican election effort, said Saturday he had told Hastert months ago about concerns Foley sent inappropriate messages to a teenage boy. Reynolds, R-N.Y., is under attack from Democrats who say he did too little to protect the boy.
Hastert acknowledged over the weekend that his aides had, in fact, referred the matter to the House clerk and to the congressman who was chairman of the board that oversees the page program. Hastert's office said, however, it had not known the e-mails were anything more than "over-friendly."
Majority Republicans engineered a House vote Friday that refers the Foley matter to the House ethics committee, but lets that panel decide whether there should even be an investigation.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, pressed the committee on Sunday to begin investigating and make a preliminary report within 10 days. She demanded to know who knew of the messages, whether Foley had other contacts with pages and when the Republican leadership was notified of Foley's conduct.
"Republican leaders have admitted to knowing about Mr. Foley's outrageous behavior for six months to a year, and they chose to cover it up rather than to protect these children," she wrote.
Congressional pages, a staple of Washington politics since the 1820s, are high school students who serve as temporary gofers in the House and Senate. The program nearly ended in the early 1980s due to alleged sexual misconduct and drug use.
Republican leaders say it is their duty to ensure House pages' safety, and are now creating a toll-free hot line for pages and their families to call to confidentially report any incidents. They also will consider adopting new rules on communications between lawmakers and pages.
Foley, who is 52 and single, was co-chairman of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus. In a statement Friday, he said, "I am deeply sorry and I apologize for letting down my family and the people of Florida I have had the privilege to represent."
Bartlett spoke on ABC's "This Week, CNN's "Late Edition" and CBS' "Face the Nation."