WASHINGTON – To understand the Republican handling of Mark Foley's computer messages to former pages, House investigators must sort through conflicting statements, failures to recall and assertions that key conversations didn't happen.
The committee has interviewed 21 witnesses behind closed doors since Oct. 11, keeping some in a basement Capitol office for more than five hours while trying to find out who knew what about Foley — and when.
The panel may find it difficult, if not impossible, to resolve the split between Speaker Dennis Hastert and two other House GOP leaders, campaign chairman Tom Reynolds of New York and Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio.
All three were questioned extensively by the committee. But, adhering to the committee's warning not to discuss testimony, none of them nor any of the other witnesses have provided details publicly.
Although the two Republicans and two Democrats conducting the investigation have worked up to 12 hours on some days, there is no indication anything can be resolved before the Nov. 7 election. Polls show Republican candidates have been harmed by the scandal.
"I don't think they should come out with a half-cocked report if they don't really have it nailed down," said Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., who served eight years on the ethics committee, four as chairman, before Hastert had him replaced.
There is no indication that Republican leaders knew of sexually explicit computer messages to former male pages until the scandal burst into the open and Foley, R-Fla., resigned at the end of the September.
Boehner and Reynolds say that before then they were aware only of Foley e-mails to a former Louisiana page. Those messages asked about the 16-year-old's birthday and requested a picture.
Hastert says he didn't even learn about the Foley e-mails — described as "overly friendly" but ambiguous — until the case became public.
Reynolds and Boehner say they spoke to Hastert about the e-mails last spring.
Can Reynolds, Boehner and Hastert all be telling the truth? They can.
To understand why, one might watch the scene in the House chamber whenever the speaker arrives during a vote. Hastert usually heads to a table for Republican leaders at the front of the chamber, and chaos follows.
"He's encircled and you have to wait in line," said Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, a former member of the ethics committee. "He's solving a number of concerns.
"I talk to the speaker. I know he doesn't remember. I talk to him again and it's like the first time I told him. That could lead to the conclusion that nobody's being untruthful. Maybe somebody said something and it didn't register."
Hastert picked up the story from there, in an interview with conservative activist and columnist Paul Weyrich.
The speaker told Weyrich that Reynolds, the campaign chief, always has 20 or more requests to help incumbents in trouble. The requests are repetitive. Hastert said he only listens with one ear.
Weyrich wrote: "Did Reynolds during such a session drop the bombshell about Foley in the speaker's lap without the speaker's comprehending what was being told to him? That is possible but unlikely, the speaker said."
In Hastert's version of "can't recall," Weyrich added: "In any case, he has absolutely no recollection."
Weyrich said Hastert assured him that Boehner's assertion — that he told Hastert about Foley — was not correct.
When Reynolds was asked by reporters when he spoke with the speaker, he couldn't precisely recall, except to say it was in the spring, shortly after he learned of Foley's inappropriate e-mails to the ex-Louisiana page.
Asked what month in the spring, Reynolds said: "I don't know exactly, it was spring."
Boehner said in late September, when the scandal broke, that he learned of the e-mails in late spring and he promptly told Hastert. Boehner quoted Hastert as saying the matter "had been taken care of."
The Washington Post has reported that hours after making that statement, Boehner contacted the newspaper to say he could not be sure he had spoken to Hastert.
"Mr. Boehner has always said that he believes he mentioned his conversation with Mr. Alexander to Hastert but can't guarantee that he did with 100 percent certainty," Boehner spokesman Kevin Madden said in an e-mailed statement. The reference was to Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., sponsor of the former page who received the Foley e-mails.
The ethics committee might have less trouble resolving a conflict between Foley's one-time chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, and Hastert chief of staff Scott Palmer.
Fordham says he warned Palmer about Foley in 2003, or possibly 2002.
"What Kirk Fordham said did not happen," Palmer has said in his lone public statement on the matter.
In this instance, Fordham or Palmer may be able to produce some kind of written record — e-mails, for example — or corroborating witnesses.
As for Hastert's other top aides, an internal report by the speaker's office says they first learned about Foley in the fall of 2005 — when they were told about the e-mails to the former page from Louisiana. A top Hastert aide notified the clerk of the House, who — along with the chairman of the board overseeing pages — confronted Foley and demanded he cease contact with the youngster.
The internal report mentions what each person did except Palmer, the speaker's chief of staff. He wasn't mentioned at all in the report.
Is it possible the staff didn't let Hastert or Palmer know?
"If it never got to Scott Palmer they all need to be fired," said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who worked for Newt Gingrich when he was speaker.
Galen said that when Gingrich was speaker the ambiguous e-mail would have "gone as high as the chief of staff. I assume it would have gone to Newt."