Tuesday, October 3, 2006

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said yesterday that Republican leaders had not previously seen the more lurid Internet “instant messages” sent by disgraced ex-Rep. Mark Foley as influential conservatives began calling for party leadership resignations over the handling of the matter.

“The instant messages reportedly between Congressman Foley and a former page, sent in 2003, were vile and repulsive,” Mr. Hastert said yesterday. “No one in the Republican leadership … saw those messages until last Friday when ABC News released them to the public.”

Had Mr. Foley not resigned immediately, he added, “I would have demanded his expulsion.”

Still, several well-known conservatives called for Republican resignations because, they said, Mr. Hastert and other leaders did not act aggressively enough when they first learned last year of a separate set of “overly friendly” e-mails that Mr. Foley had sent to another teenage former page.

“Speaker Hastert had knowledge of Congressman Foley’s inappropriate behavior and chose to protect a potential pedophile and powerful colleague over a congressional page,” David Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United, said yesterday.

“This inaction demonstrates a lack of leadership on Speaker Hastert’s part and calls into question both his judgment and character,” Mr. Bossie said. “If Speaker Hastert was willing to sacrifice a child to protect Representative Foley’s seat and his own leadership position, then he surely does not share our American and conservative values.”

Richard A. Viguerie, a founder of the conservative movement, called for the “immediate resignation of any House GOP leaders who had knowledge of former Congressman Mark Foley’s improper contact with underage pages — but who took no action.”

Mr. Hastert told reporters yesterday that he had been unaware of sexually explicit messages sent by Mr. Foley but had been told about previous, less sordid, messages in which the congressman asked a teen boy what he wanted for his birthday and whether he could provide a photograph of himself.

“There was nothing explicit in this e-mail that I understood,” Mr. Hastert told reporters yesterday. “His parents were protective of this thing and what they wanted was Mr. Foley … to stop contacting their son.”

The explanation did not convince Mr. Viguerie.

“When you have a 50-year-old man — who is a known homosexual — who wants a picture of a 16-year-old boy, that should send out some alarm bells,” he said. “This is almost like a Clinton-type response.”

Mr. Foley has refused to answer questions about his sexuality.

Nor did it convince conservative activist Bay Buchanan.

“That e-mail they call an ‘overly friendly’ e-mail — that had predator stamped all over it. There’s just no one in this country that can suggest otherwise,” said Mrs. Buchanan, the president of American Cause.

Such rebukes by conservative supporters yesterday erased any hopes by Republican leaders that they might curtail the political fallout from the scandal, which broke last week just as lawmakers were heading home for November elections that could end their near-continuous 12-year grip on Congress.

“Most Republicans are sticking together,” said Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean. “Most Republicans understand that 30 days before Election Day, we need to stand together and find out what happened and continue fighting the war on terror and cutting taxes.”

Conservative outrage echoed that of Democratic leaders.

“Speaker Hastert again failed to answer the question that every mother and father in America is asking: How could Republican leaders choose partisan politics over protecting children?” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said after Mr. Hastert held a press conference yesterday with Rep. John Shimkus, Illinois Republican and leader of the Congressional Page Board.

“Republican leaders admitted to knowing about Mr. Foley’s abhorrent behavior for six months to a year and failed to protect the children in their trust,” she said. “Republican leaders must be investigated by the ethics committee and immediately questioned under oath.”

In Florida, meanwhile, Republican leaders tapped state Rep. Joe Negron to run in Mr. Foley’s place against Democrat Tim Mahoney, whose campaign had been viewed as a long shot before last week’s developments. Though Mr. Foley’s name remains on the November ballot, Mr. Negron will be awarded any votes cast for the six-term congressman, according to Florida election law, as well as any write-ins that are cast for him.

“Obviously I’d rather have my name on the ballot, but Mark Foley, that name is a place-holder — that’s it,” Mr. Negron told reporters in Orlando yesterday. “He’s withdrawn — not in Congress, not a congressman anymore. This is going to be a race between Joe Negron and Tim Mahoney.”

Former Florida Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade said chances are slim that Republicans can hold the seat.

“I think it’s a death sentence … mission impossible,” he said. “The only way you win is [voters] have got to vote for Mark Foley. That doesn’t appear to me to be very attractive.”

On Sunday night, two days after his resignation, Mr. Foley checked himself into a clinic for treatment of alcoholism, for at least 30 days. He also has issued a statement assuming responsibility for his actions.

Last night, his attorney David Roth told CNN that Mr. Foley is “absolutely, positively not a pedophile” and “has never ever had an inappropriate sexual contact with a minor in his life.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill say they feel betrayed by their longtime colleague and offered no words of comfort for him.

“Congressman Foley duped a lot of people,” Mr. Hastert said. “He lied to Mr. Shimkus, and he deceived his in-state paper when they each questioned him. He deceived the good men and women in organizations around the country with whom he worked to strengthen our child-predator law. I have known him for all the years he served in this House, and he deceived me, too.”

Whatever the cause, Mr. Viguerie said, it’s more evidence that Republicans have lost their way.

“This isn’t an isolated situation,” he said. “It is only the most recent example of Republican House leaders doing whatever it takes to hold onto power. If it means spending billions of taxpayers’ dollars on questionable projects, they’ll do it. If it means covering up the most despicable actions of a colleague, they’ll do it. They’ve lost their moral rudder.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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