WASHINGTON – He would rather talk about the latest apple crop, but these days Rep. Doc Hastings is spending more time scrutinizing salacious allegations against a former colleague.
Hastings, a 65-year-old Republican from Washington state, is chairman of the House ethics committee, which is investigating sexually explicit electronic messages sent by ex-Rep. Mark Foley to teenage male pages.
A former small-town paper supplier who represents a rural district best known for its apples and pears, the taciturn Hastings has long sought to blend into the scenery on Capitol Hill. Before taking over the committee last year, he had never held a Washington news conference.
That changed when the committee got the politically uncomfortable job of investigating former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. The panel had hardly begun meeting before DeLay resigned from Congress.
Now Hastings finds himself in the spotlight again as he leads the Foley inquiry. Foley, R-Fla., resigned last month after he was confronted with instant messages sent to former male pages.
While clearly uneasy about his renewed visibility, Hastings pledges that the Foley investigation will go wherever the evidence leads.
"I take that responsibility that I have as the chairman of the ethics committee very seriously," he told The Associated Press. "Life gives you all sorts of responsibilities, and sometimes you just have to deal with them. I feel very confident in the direction we are moving."
While still in its early stages, the inquiry already has had some missteps.
After an Oct. 5 news conference announcing the investigation, critics accused Hastings of being too close to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., a key focus of the Foley investigation. Some Democrats and others contend Hastert and other House leaders did not do enough to stop Foley after they became aware of some of the electronic messages he had sent.
Asked whether he personally supports Hastert, who named Hastings to lead the ethics committee, Hastings said, "I think the speaker has done an excellent job."
Hastings later clarified that his remarks were "not related to the matter at hand here."
"They should have brought in an outside counsel," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group that monitors congressional ethics. The ethics panel rejected that idea in favor of a four-member subcommittee of two Republicans and two Democrats from the full committee.
The lack of an outside counsel "gravely undermines the public credibility of the House investigation and calls into serious question whether we will ever get to the bottom of what happened here," Wertheimer said.
Hastings and Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., also were criticized for old political contributions from Hastert's political action committee. The Keep Our Majority committee gave $2,500 to Hastings in 2000, and $6,000 to Biggert in 2002.
In an interview with the AP, Hastings declined to say whether he expects to have the investigation completed by the Nov. 7 election, as some Democrats and outside groups have advocated.
"We are moving to have this done in weeks," he said. "Obviously there are logistics we have to deal with. We are moving as quickly as we can."
But some critics say Hastings has already shown his hand.
"The doctor was out when the patient was very sick," said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University who has studied Congress. Since Hastings took over the ethics panel in early 2005, the committee has met just a few times.
It was only after West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan — the former top Democrat on the ethics committee — stepped down under his own ethics cloud that the partisan squabbles ended. Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., replaced Mollohan in April and established a good working relationship with Hastings.
Berman, who has pledged that he "wanted no part of an incumbent protection agency," said he has been impressed by Hastings.
While the two men disagree politically, "on this committee and for purposes of this investigation, we are going to put those partisan considerations totally aside — as I have seen and witnessed from the chairman during the past five-and-a-half months," Berman said.
In a burst of activity last May, the ethics panel announced a flurry of investigations, focusing on Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, with links to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and on Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who was at the center of a separate bribery probe. Ney pleaded guilty on Friday in the Abramoff scandal and he faces up to 10 years in prison.
But Thurber said those probes were too little too late.
"I think it's hurt his reputation," he said of Hastings' service on the ethics panel, "and I think he likely will move to get off the ethics committee if the Republicans lose" the majority in November.