- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

3:08 p.m.

WASHINGTON (AP) - House Speaker Dennis Hastert will take responsibility for the unfolding page sex scandal but insist he will stay on as leader of House Republicans, a House GOP official said Thursday. The ethics committee voted to to investigate improper conduct between lawmakers and teenage pages.

Hastert will ask former FBI director Louis Freeh to also examine the page system and make recommendations on how to improve program almost as old as the Congress itself. Freeh headed the FBI from 1993 to 2001 during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

At a news conference in his home district in Illinois, Hastert will also ask the Ethics Committee to consider new rules so that anyone making inappropriate contact with pages be disciplined. In the case of staff, they would be fired; lawmakers would be subject to expulsion, the official said.

Hastert also was ready to appoint an outside expert to investigate the scandal and recommend changes to the page program, virtually as old as Congress itself.

As Hastert huddled with aides to write a statement to be delivered at the news conference, the ethics panel opened an investigation into the unfolding scandal over Rep. Mark Foley’s come-ons to teenage congressional pages and accusations - even by some Republicans - that House leaders failed to protect the teens.

The committee, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, sat in closed session to take up a matter that imperils Hastert’s leadership and has stirred extraordinary GOP infighting with midterm elections barely a month away.

Leaders of the ethics panel said they would speak publicly about the session in early afternoon.

Hastert was to try to draw a contrast with Democrats in past scandals, the official said, asserting that the speaker forced Foley’s resignation as soon as he became aware of his contacts with young pages.

A former House aide said Wednesday that he alerted the speaker’s staff more than three years ago that Foley’s conduct was a problem.

The swift-moving developments came as a furor mounted over the revelations about Foley and his resignation last Friday. Negative fallout for Republicans struggling to keep control of Congress was apparent in the latest AP-Ipsos poll, conducted this week after the Foley revelations surfaced.

About half of likely voters said recent disclosures of corruption and scandal in Congress will be very or extremely important in their vote next month, and Democrats enjoyed a nearly 2-to-1 advantage as the party better able to fight corruption.

Hastert asserted Wednesday that any Republicans urging his ouster were playing into the hands of Democrats and blamed his problems on the media and Democratic operatives, even suggesting former President Clinton might somehow be involved.

“All I know is what I hear and what I see,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune on the eve of the ethics meeting. “I saw Bill Clinton’s adviser, Richard Morris, was saying these guys knew about this all along, If somebody had this info, when they had it, we could have dealt with it then.”

In fact, Morris, who has advised both parties, offered no independent knowledge of Democrats being aware of the Foley communications before they came out. He said on Fox News that an unidentified reporter told him a Democratic leader had known about the matter.

Hastert said “people funded by George Soros,” a liberal billionaire who has plowed millions into this and other election campaigns, want to see the scandal blow up. And he warned that when the GOP “base finds out who’s feeding this monster, they’re not going to be happy.”

ABC News, which broke the story last week, has said former Republican-sponsored pages - not Democratic politicians or operatives - were the source of revelations about lurid instant messages, after the network reported flirtatious e-mails from Foley to one page.

Some leading Republicans have publicly blamed Hastert for failing to take action after he was warned about the messages. And a former Foley aide said he told Republican leaders about the Florida congressman’s conduct years earlier than they have acknowledged.

With Republicans concerned about maintaining their congressional majority in the elections, support for Hastert was ebbing. Republican officials said at least a few disgruntled members of the GOP rank and file had discussed whether to call on the speaker to step aside. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

In Atlanta, meanwhile, former page Tyson Vivyan, now 26, told AP he received sexually suggestive computer messages in 1997, years before the communications exposed last week, from an anonymous sender who turned out to be Foley.

Vivyan said he visited Foley’s brownstone at the congressman’s invitation, bringing another page with him because he did not want to go alone. They had pizza and soft drinks, and nothing sexual happened, he said.

Rep. John. J. Duncan, R-Tenn., had sponsored Vivyan as a page. His deputy chief of staff, Don Walker, said Thursday his office had heard nothing of Vivyan’s contact with Foley until Monday. “As soon as we learned of it we turned it over to the authorities.” Vivyan said the FBI interviewed him this week.

Foley’s attorney, David Roth, declined to comment Thursday on the allegations from the former page.

Hastert announced that a tip line had been activated for people to call if they have information on Foley or any problems with the page program. The number is 866-348-0481.

The Justice Department earlier this week ordered House officials to preserve all records related to Foley’s electronic correspondence with teenagers. The request for record preservation is often followed by search warrants and subpoenas, and signal that investigators are moving closer to a criminal investigation.

Foley, 52, stepped down after he was confronted with sexually explicit electronic messages he had sent teenage male pages. He has since entered an alcohol rehabilitation facility at an undisclosed location. Through his lawyer, he has said he is gay but denied any sexual contact with minors.

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