Timing of Foley case bad for GOP

WASHINGTON – House Speaker Dennis Hastert urged ethics investigators to work quickly to unravel the congressional pages scandal yesterday, testifying before them just after a GOP lawmaker whose recollections differ from his.

The investigation is focusing on which House leaders were told about sexually explicit messages sent by Rep. Mark Foley to former pages, when leaders were told and what was done in response. Hastert and some other Republicans have suggested revelations about the messages were timed to hurt the GOP in next month’s elections.

Yesterday’s appearances by Hastert, R-Ill., and House GOP campaign chair Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., could signal that the four-member ethics committee is nearing the end of its testimony – taking phase. Both men testified behind closed doors as committee rules require.

Hastert said afterward that he had told the committee “that they needed to move quickly to get to the bottom of this issue, including who knew about the sexually explicit messages and when they knew about it.”

Hastert has said he first learned of Foley’s inappropriate e-mails to a former Louisiana page – and sexually explicit e-mails to another page – just last month as the matter became public and the Florida Republican resigned.

But Hastert’s appearance followed that of Reynolds, who has said he learned of Foley’s inappropriate e-mails to the Louisiana teen last spring and discussed the matter with Hastert.

Hastert has said he didn’t recall that conversation. He has also assured conservative activist Paul Weyrich that Majority Leader John Boehner was wrong when Boehner said he and Hastert discussed Foley’s problems last spring.

Hastert said he answered investigators’ questions “to the best of my ability.”

The Foley scandal continues to weigh on GOP poll numbers just two weeks before midterm elections that could cost the Republicans control of Congress. The ethics committee’s top Democrat, Howard Berman of California, would not say in a brief exchange whether the panel would release any findings before Election Day.

What has emerged to date is a pattern in which incidents involving Foley’s inappropriate behavior with former pages have been handled by a few staff aides and lawmakers, rather than being referred to the ethics committee or the full membership of the bipartisan board overseeing the page program.

The ethics panel has heard from most of the key witnesses except Foley himself. Since he resigned in disgrace, the ethics committee no longer has jurisdiction. The FBI has opened an inquiry but it’s not evident that Foley broke any laws.

There is a separate question as to when Hastert’s top aides first learned about Foley’s behavior toward pages. An account issued by the speaker’s office describes how “over friendly” e-mails to the Louisiana page were handled last fall. Other alleged incidents have since surfaced.