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Hastert defiant in page scandal

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- A defiant House Speaker Dennis Hastert fought yesterday to hold on to his leadership post while fractures appeared among his lieutenants and a former senior aide to Rep. Mark Foley said he had repeatedly warned Hastert's top aide about Foley's inappropriate behavior toward underage pages more than two years ago.

In an interview, Hastert said he had no thoughts of resigning, and he blamed ABC News and Democratic operatives for the mushrooming scandal that threatens his tenure as speaker and Republicans' hold on power in the House.

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"No," Hastert said. "I think that resignation is exactly what our opponents would like to have happen, that I'd fold my tent and others would fold our tent and they would sweep the House."

When asked about a groundswell of discontent among the GOP's conservative base over his handling of the issue, Hastert said: "I think the base has to realize after a while, 'Who knew about it? Who knew what, when?' When the base finds out who's feeding this monster, they're not going to be happy. The people who want to see this thing blow up are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros."

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Hastert suggested that operatives aligned with former President Bill Clinton knew about the allegations and might have been behind the disclosures in the closing weeks before the Nov. 7 elections, but he offered no proof.

Hastert said he had spoken with former President George Bush, whom he described as "very supportive." He said he had not spoken to President Bush.

"I'm sorry that the contact between Foley and the pages happened," Hastert said. "Something like this, I take the responsibility. The buck stops where I'm at. When we found out, we dealt with it immediately and the member is gone. ... We have reached out to experts to make sure that it never happens again."

But time did not seem to be Hastert's ally. In a day of rapid developments, his office denied the charge from former Foley chief of staff Kirk Fordham that he had alerted the speaker's chief of staff to Foley's behavior well before a former page complained last year of inappropriate e-mail from the Florida Republican congressman. Fordham had resigned earlier in the day as chief of staff to Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, the Republicans' national congressional campaign chairman, and Reynolds was among those involved in discussions of the page's complaint about Foley.

Fordham's lawyer, Timothy Heaphy, said Fordham warned Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, at least two years ago about inappropriate behavior between Foley and pages. "Palmer subsequently had a meeting with Foley, and Foley mentioned it to Fordham," Heaphy said.

Fordham is unsure when the meeting with Palmer occurred, but Heaphy said it was between 2002 and January 2004, when Fordham was Foley's chief of staff.

The FBI has contacted Fordham and "he intends to cooperate completely," Heaphy said.

The usually disciplined House Republican leadership showed signs of disarray, with Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri telling reporters that he would have urged a different course of action had colleagues informed him of the page's complaint.

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"I think I could have given some good advice here, which is: 'You have to be curious, you have to ask all the questions you can think of,'" said Blunt, who ranks third in the Republican leadership. "You absolutely can't decide not to look into activities because one individual's parents don't want you to."

A day earlier, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, who was informed of the page's complaint last spring, appeared to be insulating himself from Hastert, telling a radio audience that he had relied on assurances from Hastert that the issue had been handled.

Rep. Ron Lewis of Kentucky, in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, abruptly canceled a fundraiser at which Hastert was scheduled to appear.

Hastert's deputy chief of staff, Mike Stokke, said Hastert has not received any feelers from the White House or Republican officials about leaving and had been on the phone much of the day talking with GOP lawmakers.

Still, national Republican officials were trying to move beyond a scandal that has crippled their campaign for the midterm elections.

"This is a disaster. It's undermining our base. And it's been handled terribly," said a Republican official with close ties to the White House. "Right now, everybody's circling the wagons."

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But the official pointed out that a departure by Hastert might not solve the party's political difficulties since Boehner also was in the loop on the complaint. "The No. 2 supposedly knew about this months ago," the official said.

With the House Ethics Committee scheduled to begin an investigation today, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said that Hastert and the rest of the GOP leadership should be "immediately questioned under oath."

Foley, 52, resigned Friday after ABC News disclosed sexually explicit instant messages that the congressman exchanged with teenage former congressional pages. Last fall, Hastert's staff received a complaint from the office of Rep. Rodney Alexander, a Louisiana Republican, that a former page Alexander had sponsored received an e-mail from Foley requesting a photo and asking the 16-year-old what he wanted for his birthday.

The controversy engulfing Hastert and other Republican leaders has focused on his handling of that complaint, and the speaker's staff has stressed that they were unaware of the other, more lurid messages until Foley's resignation.

The matter was referred to then-House Clerk Jeff Trandahl, a Republican appointee whose domain includes the page program, and Page Board Chairman Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois. They told Foley to cease contact with pages but did not inform authorities or otherwise investigate.

Stokke, who said he referred the complaint without informing Hastert, defended his actions.

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"I didn't want it to look political," Stokke said. "It was turned over to the proper authority. And if the proper authority had found anything of a sexual nature, they would have reported back."

Stokke said he could not recall how he heard of the outcome, but he said, "I remember hearing that they had this intervention with Foley and it had been handled."

Stokke said no one on Hastert's staff had received any warnings about Foley's inappropriate conduct with pages until the congressman resigned.

"There were rumors rampant here that he was gay, which is not illegal," Stokke said.

Still, Fordham told the Associated Press that he had "more than one conversation with senior staff at the highest level of the House of Representatives asking them to intervene" several years ago. Fordham named Palmer, who issued a denial through the speaker's press office.

Rick Pearson and Mike Dorning write for the Chicago Tribune.



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