A bipartisan House ethics committee report last week harshly criticized outgoing Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republican leaders for negligence in investigating reports of inappropriate computer messages from former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., to former congressional pages.
But the committee said it found no evidence that anyone broke House ethics rules and recommended no further investigation or punishment of any of Foley’s enablers.
A Baptist ethicist said the report didn’t go far enough.
“Criticism without corrective action is shallow critique for public consumption,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “Foley’s outrageous behavior and the outrageous negligence of the House leadership necessitate more than a report hiding behind House rules unable to assign responsibility.”
The report by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, released Friday, described a “disconcerting unwillingness” by House leaders to take responsibility for investigating Foley’s conduct.
It found a “significant number” of instances where leaders “failed to exercise appropriate diligence and oversight, or should have exercised greater diligence and oversight,” regarding interactions between Foley and current or former House pages.
“Rather than addressing the issues fully, some witnesses did far too little, while attempting to pass the responsibility for acting to others,” the report said. “Some relied on unreasonably fine distinctions regarding their defined responsibilities. Almost no one followed up adequately on the limited actions they did take.”
While the committee did not determine the motive for inaction, it noted that factors in play might have been concerns that pursuing the issue too aggressively would have revealed Foley’s closeted homosexuality, which “could have adversely affected him both personally and politically.”
“There is some evidence that political considerations played a role in decisions that were made by persons in both parties,” the report said.
The committee did not question Foley, because his attorney informed them he would refuse to answer questions by pleading the Fifth Amendment.
The report found evidence that Foley on more than one occasion established contact with House pages before the end of their service and secured e-mail or other contact information. After their departure, it said, Foley began contacting some former pages with “increasingly familiar communications” that at times turned “sexually graphic” and in some cases “could be read as sexual solicitation.”
While the recipients were former pages at the time the graphic messages were sent, the report noted the fact Foley made initial contact while they were still pages suggested he “may have been using the page program to in part at least identify possible future recipients of graphic communications.”
“At its core, such conduct is an abuse of power, and an abuse of trust of the pages, their parents or guardians, and the Congress itself,” the committee said. “Behavior of this kind cannot be excused or tolerated, as it undermines the integrity of the House.”
If Foley had not resigned, the committee said, the findings “would almost certainly have subjected him to disciplinary proceedings.”
Hastert, R-Ill., testified he did not recall hearing anything about the e-mails prior to Foley’s resignation on Sept. 29, but the committee found “the weight of evidence” indicates Hastert “was told, at least in passing, about the e-mails” in the spring of 2006.
Hastert’s counsel, Ted Van Der Meid, who had known earlier about concerns involving Foley’s interaction with pages, “showed an inexplicable lack of interest” about the e-mails.
The subcommittee said if found no evidence that anyone in the House was aware of instant messages, which were more graphic and damaging than the e-mails, prior to their publication Sept. 29.
But it said a decision by the Speaker’s office to have an attorney prepare a statement describing knowledge about the Foley affair on Sept. 30 “could have had the additional effect of inhibiting the Investigative Subcommittee’s ability to secure evidence from witnesses.”
Hastert said in a written statement he is “glad the committee made clear that there was no violation of any House Rules by any member or staff.”
“As I said at the time–and the committee has now confirmed–the Investigative Subcommittee uncovered no evidence that the IMs were provided to, or were possessed by, any House member, officer, or employee, the press, or any political organization prior to September 28 and 29, 2006,” Hastert said.
Hastert’s statement referred to a part of the report that focused specifically on 2003 instant messages published by ABC News on Sept. 29.
Another section examined testimony of a former page sponsored by Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., who said he reported to Kolbe receiving instant messages from Foley that made him feel uncomfortable during the fall of 2001. Kolbe said he recalled being contacted by the former page about Foley but denied ever seeing the actual IMs.
According to the former page, after Foley resigned on Sept.29, he called Kolbe’s cell phone to ask for advice about what to do if asked by the ethics committee about the 2001 messages from Foley. Kolbe’s response, he said, was, “It is best that you don’t even bring this up with anybody…. There is no good that can come from it if you actually talk about this. The man has resigned anyway.”
The House report said concerns about Foley’s interaction with pages surfaced soon after he joined the Congress in January 1995. Complaints involved the congressman spending too much time with pages on the House floor, interfering with their duties, an interest in male pages that gave one supervisor a “creepy feeling” and at least two appearances by Foley at the page residence after curfew.
Several witnesses said they had heard an old story about Foley showing up at the page dorm, apparently intoxicated, and being turned away by Capitol police. Another incident occurred at a customary end-of-the-semester all-night party, when a man in a convertible appeared at the residence hall, and before the supervising staff member could react, at least two pages got in the car with the man and drove away. Upon learning the man was Rep. Foley, the director was reportedly unconcerned and the pages returned a short time thereafter.
Parham was one of 18 religious leaders who issued an open letter in October calling for “repentance and resignation” by members of Congress who knew of Foley’s behavior but failed to act.
“Preserving political power is more important than protecting pages and punishing a predator,” Parham said. “Shame on the House Ethics Committee. I hope Speaker Pelosi and her leadership team will step up quickly in 2007 to clean up a dirty House.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.