- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006


The House’s investigation of a page sex scandal has only one certainty: Former Rep. Mark Foley will escape punishment by his peers.

The Florida Republican’s sexually explicit electronic messages to teenage former male pages have ignited what has become a pre-election firestorm, but Congress can punish only current members, officers and employees. Mr. Foley resigned on Sept. 29 but is under investigation by federal and Florida authorities.

If the House ethics committee finds evidence of a Republican cover-up, many lawmakers could be in jeopardy, facing consequences that range from a mild rebuke in a committee report to a House vote of censure or expulsion.

Unlike the committee’s usual practice of identifying the investigative target at the outset, this probe is wide open. Anyone who knew of Mr. Foley’s salacious messages before the story broke at the end of September has reason for concern.

“At this point, what we’re launching is an investigation into this whole affair, without a specific target,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman of California, the senior Democrat on the 10-member committee.

“But because Mark Foley has left the Congress, we don’t have the authority to discipline him in any way,” Mr. Berman said. “The reason what happened is relevant is because there are people now who have responsibilities, and we’re gathering the facts which are related to his conduct to make judgments.”

A second committee member, Rep. Judy Biggert, Illinois Republican, said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s prominence in questioning about who knew what and when about Mr. Foley’s conduct toward pages and Mr. Hastert’s closeness to her will not be a problem.

The leadership political committee of Mr. Hastert, Illinois Republican, gave Mrs. Biggert $6,000 for her 2002 campaign, and his re-election committee gave her $1,000. Her district adjoins Mr. Hastert’s.

“We’re looking at a great number of people, not just one specific person,” Mrs. Biggert said. “The facts will lead to us to who, if there is someone, who perhaps did a cover-up.”

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group that monitors congressional ethics, said he wondered whether the committee can conduct an impartial investigation without an outside counsel. The committee rejected that idea, as it has done occasionally in other high-profile cases involving House leaders.

“Published reports have clearly indicated a number of House members were aware of the incident with the House page,” Mr. Wertheimer said, referring to less suggestive e-mails Mr. Foley sent to a former page from Louisiana. “You would expect the committee to make clear they would be looking at those members. That doesn’t mean they would reach any conclusion.”

He noted the committee did not specify whom it will interview. Mr. Hastert has said he was not aware of Mr. Foley’s inappropriate conduct until the story became public late last month.

“The House ethics committee process is a secret process, so we don’t know what’s going to go on,” Mr. Wertheimer said.

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