FBI opens probe in Foley case

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Dennis Hastert, responding to complaints about how Republicans have handled allegations of misconduct by a GOP colleague, called yesterday for a Justice Department investigation, including any improper behavior by his office, and the FBI later said it was "conducting an assessment to see if there's been a violation of federal law."

Democrats intensified their criticism of Republican handling of the scandal, in which Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican, resigned after the revelation of sexually charged electronic messages that he had sent to current and former congressional pages, all of them underage.


In a letter sent late yesterday afternoon to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Hastert asked that federal investigators look into possible criminal behavior by Foley. The move by Hastert, an Illinois Republican, underlined the scandal's potential damage for Republicans as they head into the final month of campaigning before the midterm elections. Hastert also asked that Gonzales find out who had specific knowledge of sexually explicit communication between Foley and the pages, and what those people did with the information.

In emphasizing the phrase "sexually explicit communication," Hastert was highlighting the key defense of his office's account of what happened - that the staff knew of an "over-friendly" e-mail exchange months ago but was not aware of explicit electronic messages that they say came to their attention only last week. But there is some dispute within the Republican Party over Hastert's role, as Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, a New York Republican, pointedly noted that he had made the speaker aware of the allegations - in some form at least - months ago.


Hastert's letter blunted some of the thunder from Democrats, who had been calling for an independent investigation during political events and news talk shows yesterday. Still, ranking Democrats questioned whether the investigation would exonerate Republican leadership when so many seemingly damning details are already part of the public record.

"Taking at face value the statements made by House Republican leadership, they really ignored their responsibility," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. "Here are people officially responsible for the pages taking care not to ask the hard questions; taking care not to turn this over for a full-scale investigation right away. I think that is shameful."

The effort to contain the damage of the scandal began immediately after Foley's resignation Friday and continued through the weekend. ABC News' publication of Foley's electronic messages with young men who serve or served as pages has thrown the race in Foley's heavily Republican district into play for Democrats. The timing is especially crucial for Republicans as they struggle to fend off an attempt by Democrats to pick up the 15 seats needed to retake control of the House.

But part of the problem for the Republicans is intramural. Top GOP officials disclosed over the weekend that they knew for months about the original message exchange with a 16-year-old former page, though they say they weren't familiar with the specifics. Even after Reynolds, who is also chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and House Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio learned that there had been some questionable communications between Foley and one young man, Foley remained head of the congressional caucus on missing and exploited children. The NRCC also accepted a $100,000 transfer from Foley's campaign committee in July, disclosure records show.

Reynolds says he told Hastert months ago that he had heard about some problematic e-mails in a conversation that Hastert says he doesn't recall but does not dispute. What's more, The Washington Post reported that Boehner said in an interview three days ago that he also told Hastert about his hazy understanding of an e-mail exchange by Foley, but an aide to Boehner now says the congressman isn't sure he brought up the matter with Hastert.

In a written account of the matter, Hastert's office said Saturday that staff members were aware of an "overfriendly" message by Foley in the fall of 2005. In that exchange, Foley reportedly asked a young man from Louisiana how he was weathering Hurricane Katrina and requested a picture of him. Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, confronted Foley and told him to stop communicating with the page, but Republican leaders did not pursue the matter further.

In his letter to Gonzales, Hastert reiterated that he did not know of the racy messages until they came out in news reports last week.

To his knowledge, Hastert's letter says, no one in the House leadership was aware of those sexually explicit instant messages reportedly sent sometime in 2003. Hastert also asked Gonzales to find out why the 2003 messages didn't come out sooner.


FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the agency is looking into Foley's electronic messages with pages, "conducting an assessment to see if there's been a violation of federal law."

As representatives begin the final month of campaigning before the midterm elections, several Republican advisers told The New York Times yesterday that they feared that the scandal over the e-mail messages threatened to complicate their efforts. If nothing else, they said, it provides another reason for voters to be displeased with Congress.

"It's been a time bomb from Day One," said a senior Republican strategist who is close to the party's congressional leaders and the White House and who was granted anonymity to speak freely about internal party concerns. "Now, it's sad for the whole House."

The Democratic National Committee seized on the scandal, sending out a scathing statement that raised pointed questions about Hastert and other Republican congressional leaders. In bold red type, the dispatch asked: "What did Coach H and his buddies know and when did they know it?"

It was a rare instance in this fierce political season that Republicans were not quick to respond. The Republican National Committee has not commented on the scandal, and nearly a dozen Republican members of Congress either declined to be interviewed or did not return calls about the matter yesterday.

In some competitive House races across the country, Democrats had started making an issue of Foley's resignation. Yesterday, Democrat Diane Farrell, who is challenging Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, said voters should hold Republicans accountable in November for the page scandal.


Christi Parsons writes for the Chicago Tribune. The New York Times contributed to this article.