WASHINGTON -- In a coda to a year of political disasters for Republicans, the House ethics committee declared yesterday that GOP lawmakers and staff members for years remained "willfully ignorant" that former Rep. Mark Foley was making sexual advances toward male congressional pages.
Instead, driven by political considerations and fear of exposing Foley's homosexuality, they failed in their duty to protect the teenagers, the committee concluded. And, the panel said, congressional officials ignored evidence of predatory behavior by the Florida Republican that began emerging more than 10 years ago.
Despite these criticisms, the bipartisan ethics panel found that no House rules were broken in the handling of the Foley case. And while noting that senior advisers to outgoing House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, were among those who were warned years ago of Foley's improprieties, the committee did not determine that there had been a systematic cover-up of the matter.
The report's lack of sanctions drew quick condemnation from government reform groups, which characterized the committee's nine-week investigation as a sham.
"It's just unfathomable how you can reach the conclusion that wrongdoing occurred but no one did it," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the independent watchdog group Democracy 21. "This is a classic demonstration of one of the fundamental ethics problems [in Congress]. They don't have a real system for enforcement."
Hastert issued a brief statement in which he praised the panel's work and said he was "glad the committee made clear that there was no violation of any House Rules by any member or staff."
Nonetheless, the report's harsh critique was another black mark on the GOP, whose losses in last month's midterm election cost it control of the House and Senate and capped a period of scandals and failed legislative initiatives. Along with Foley, four GOP lawmakers - including onetime House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas - have resigned in disgrace since last year. On the legislative front, the party stalemated this year on a number of key issues, including immigration reform and controlling federal spending.
Growing public discontent with the war in Iraq created an especially tough political environment for Republicans in this year's campaign. And in the eyes of many political experts and strategists in both parties, the Foley scandal was the final blow that crushed GOP hopes of retaining its congressional majorities.
The ethics committee probe began after publication in late September of sexually explicit messages between Foley, 52, and a former House page, a revelation that caused the 12-year House member to immediately resign his seat.
If the committee did not call for any penalties against any of those linked to the situation, it also did not find much honor in the way a succession of congressional officials responded as questions arose about Foley's actions.
As far back as the mid-1990s, the investigation found, House officials learned of warning signs that Foley had an inappropriate interest in pages.
Foley tried to visit the pages' residence hall after curfew on at least two occasions, once while he may have been intoxicated, according to the report.
In 2001, a former page who had been sponsored by Arizona Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe complained to the congressman that Foley had sent him a sexually explicit message. And in 2002, Foley used frequent flier miles to fly a former page to Washington to visit him.
But each time, officials who knew of Foley's behavior seemed to do little more than suggest to him that he be more careful.
The committee's report is particularly critical of Kolbe, who according to the former page later told him not to share information about Foley's message. Kolbe denied to the committee that he had tried to silence the former page.
Also pointedly criticized for their inaction are two of Hastert's chief lieutenants: his longtime chief of staff, Scott Palmer, and his chief counsel, Ted Van Der Mied.
Former House Clerk Jeff Trandahl - who told the committee that he confronted Foley about 10 times over the years about his personal behavior - said he repeatedly raised his concerns with Van Der Meid.
And he and former Foley chief of staff Kirk Fordham said they brought their concerns to Palmer in 2002 or 2003. Yet no official action was taken. Palmer said he did not recall meeting with Fordham.
Even in 2005, when a series of suggestive e-mails between Foley and a former page in Louisiana prompted more complaints, House leaders did little but ask Foley to stop the communications, the committee found.
The committee reported that it could not "determine conclusively" why officials had not acted more aggressively.
"Some may have been concerned that raising the issue too aggressively might have risked exposing Rep. Foley's homosexuality, which could have adversely affected him both personally and politically," the panel concluded.
It also noted that, "There is some evidence that political considerations played a role."
Although the committee did not detail what they may have been, the GOP's majority during its 12 years of controlling the House has always been relatively slender and party leaders focused on retaining every seat they could.
Addressing conflicting reports about when Hastert was alerted to Foley's communications with the former Louisiana page, the committee wrote, "The weight of the evidence supports the conclusion that Speaker Hastert was told, at least in passing, about the e-mails" months before Foley resigned.
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, head of the Republican Party's congressional campaign committee, contradicted Hastert's account that he only learned of Foley's behavior when the lawmaker resigned. Boehner and Reynolds said they alerted Hastert in the early part of this year.
Rep. Howard L. Berman of California, the committee's ranking Democrat, said the investigation's "most important contribution" would be "to tell the story of what happened."
"This is not the jerry-rigged result of a series of compromises," he said.
But the panel's failure to recommend any punishment for any official threatens to weaken its impact at a time when Democrats are promising to treat ethics more seriously than the departing GOP majority.
The committee could have officially rebuked those involved in the Foley case. It also has the power to recommend expulsion of lawmakers. The full House would then vote on such a recommendation.
A criminal probe by the Justice Department into the handling of the Foley case continues.
The committee report was released just a few hours before Hastert took to the House floor to reflect fondly upon his service as speaker since 1999. His remarks were greeted with a standing ovation from Republicans and Democrats.
Fallout from the Foley scandal had sparked speculation that Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker, would have given up the post in next year's Congress.
With Republicans becoming the minority party, Hastert decided to serve out what he has said will be his last term as a back bencher.
Incoming Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer promised yesterday that the new Democratic majority would "restore vitality to our ethics process and ensure public confidence in this institution."
But the future direction of the ethics committee remains in doubt. New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who this week appointed chairmen of the chamber's major committees, still has not selected someone to head the panel.
Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.