WASHINGTON – "Disgusting" and "horrifying" are just some of the words Republicans have used to describe former Florida Rep. Mark Foley's explicit online messages to teenage boys working as congressional pages.
Now they face the issue of dealing with the greenbacks he sent their way.
Some of Foley's GOP colleagues — who cushioned their campaign wallets with political contributions from the congressman — are quietly separating themselves from him by giving away the thousands of dollars he contributed to their campaigns.
“This is an attempt to symbolically distance themselves from what Rep. Foley may or may not have done wrong,” said John Samples, a political analyst at the libertarian CATO Institute.
Samples said the return or donation of money is a ritual that follows any scandal.
“When someone gets into some kind of trouble, then the contributions that were ever made are considered tainted,” Samples said.
Foley, elected to the House in 1994, remains in an undisclosed alcohol rehabilitation center following his abrupt resignation from Congress last week, after e-mails sent to a teenage page surfaced. Since his resignation, more online conversations have popped up, adding another coat of tarnish to his already ruined reputation.
In this 2006 election cycle, Foley gave campaign cash to Republican Reps. Geoff Davis of Kentucky; Jim Gerlach and Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania; Nancy Johnson of Connecticut; Bob Ney and Deborah Pryce of Ohio; and Clay Shaw of Florida. Vern Buchanan, who is running to replace Senate candidate Katherine Harris, also took money from Foley.
But with less than five weeks remaining until Election Day, many of Foley's colleagues are quickly divesting themselves of the money, by returning it or donating it to charities benefiting exploited children.
Shaw has given $2,000 to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Johnson returned her $1,000 and Pryce gave back $5,000. Gerlach and Davis sent $1,000 to charity, say campaign finance reports and their staffs.
The Republican Party of Florida, which received $5,000 from Foley, will donate it to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said Jeff Sadosky, a spokesman for the group.
Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, who received $8,000 from Foley, has pledged to donate the money to charity. Her spokesman Enrique Carlos Knell would not say where the money is going.
Virginia Sen. George Allen, who is among the many Republicans now in a tight re-election race, will give $5,000 in Foley contributions from two election cycles to a nonprofit group called Enough is Enough, said Dick Wadhams, Allen’s campaign manager. The group aims to protect children from online sexual predation and other explicit behavior.
Foley has given about $745,000 to fellow Republicans since 1995, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign financing.
But the top recipient of Foley's contributions, the National Republican Congressional Committee, is holding onto the cash. The NRCC, which works to increase the number of Republicans in Congress, has received $550,000 from Foley since 1996, including $100,000 this past July, according to the Federal Election Commission.
"We decided that the best use of the money is to elect other Republicans around the country," said Carl Forti, a NRCC spokesman.
Foley left Congress with $2.8 million in his campaign account through Friends of Mark Foley, his political action committee. He has the option to transfer the money to national, state or local political party committees, candidates or charity. He can also return the money to contributors.
If he chooses, Foley may petition the Federal Election Commission to request the money be used to pay possible legal bills related to his defense against any alleged misdeeds.
Foley's cash isn't the only funding that's been turned away this year. Donations have recently been sent back from lawmakers to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff; convicted former Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham; former House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay; and Ney, who decided not to run for re-election after being linked to Abramoff.
One campaign watchdog said lawmakers return the cash to avoid any appearance of impropriety on their part.
“Anytime you’ve gotten money from someone who's done something wrong, you should expect that your political opponents will try to make use of that,” said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. "I wouldn't be surprised if in some of these tight congressional contests, negative ads may pop up."
In the latest Washington imbroglio, even those who might be tangentially linked to Foley's inappropriate e-mails are trying to shake off any stray tar. Rep. Ron Lewis of Kentucky cancelled an appearance with House Speaker Dennis Hastert at a $50-per-person fundraiser next week after Hastert was accused of not responding aggressively enough to allegations against Foley.
But giving the money back doesn’t make sense, Samples said.
“It’s nuts to think that by keeping the contribution that they somehow are approving of something else that he did. It’s all caught up in the moment and the theater of what this might mean at the polls,” Samples said.