WASHINGTON — As pressure mounted on Republicans over their handling of the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley, the FBI said Sunday that it had begun a preliminary inquiry to determine whether the disgraced Florida lawmaker had violated federal law by sending sexually explicit instant messages to at least one teenager who had served as a congressional page.
The FBI's brief statement confirming the inquiry came shortly after House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) sent a letter to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales asking the Justice Department to examine "Mr. Foley's conduct with current and former House pages to determine to what extent any of his actions violated federal law."
Hastert -- who has been battling accusations that House Republicans inadequately handled concerns that Foley had sent inappropriate though not overtly sexual e-mails last year to another former page -- also asked Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to see whether state laws had been broken.
But the Republicans' effort to distance the party from Foley may be complicated by his close ties with the party's campaign operation.
Foley's longtime chief of staff is now a senior aide to Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), who as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee is leading the effort to maintain the GOP majority in the House. In addition, Foley's campaign committee gave $100,000 to the NRCC this summer, campaign finance records show.
Seizing on the campaign donation, which put Foley among the GOP committee's bigger donors, the Democratic National Committee stepped up its accusations that Reynolds and other Republican leaders were more interested in protecting Foley than investigating potential misconduct.
"Why did Republican congressional leaders choose not to ask the critical questions about the nature and full extent of Congressman Foley's criminal actions involving minors at the time they first learned about it?" Democratic Party Communications Director Karen Finney said Sunday.
Foley, a six-term Republican who was co-chair of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, resigned his seat Friday after ABC News questioned him about the sexually explicit instant messages he reportedly sent three years ago.
House Republican leaders have been under pressure since then to explain what they knew about Foley's behavior and when they knew it. They acknowledged Saturday that they had known for some time of Foley's "over-friendly" e-mails, sent to a 16-year-old Louisiana boy, but said they had not known of the sexually explicit earlier messages before last week.
In the fall of 2005, the 16-year-old, who had finished a term as a page that year sponsored by Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.), complained to a staffer in Alexander's office after receiving a series of e-mails from Foley. In them, the congressman asked for a photo and talked to the teenager about another boy being "in great shape."
After hearing from the teen and his parents, Alexander's staffers discussed their concerns with their counterparts in Hastert's office. As a result, the House clerk and the congressman in charge of the House Page Board met with Foley, who told them that his relationship with the boy was that of a mentor. They instructed him to cease his contacts with the boy.
Earlier this year, Alexander also discussed the matter with Reynolds and with House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Reynolds has said that he discussed it with Hastert, though the House speaker has said he has no recollection of the conversation but has no reason to doubt Reynolds.
In his letter to Gonzales, released several hours after Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had demanded a Justice Department investigation, Hastert said the House clerk and the head of the Page Board had believed their private meeting with Foley "resolved the situation."
But the revelation of the sexually explicit instant messages -- sent, Hastert said, to "another former page or pages" -- warranted criminal referral for two reasons: to determine whether Foley had violated federal laws on interstate communications, and to discover whether "there are persons who knew or had possession of these messages but did not report them to the appropriate authorities."
Given that the instant messages were sent in 2003, Hastert said, "I request that the scope of your investigation include any and all individuals who may have been aware of this matter -- be they members of Congress, employees of the House of Representatives, or anyone outside the Congress."
Hastert's efforts did not quell the political storm gathering around the GOP, however.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) on Sunday called on GOP House leaders to explain their actions under oath before the House Ethics Committee.
The Democratic National Committee noted Sunday that Foley's contribution, which the NRCC reported receiving on Aug. 7, came after Reynolds had acknowledged having learned about the Louisiana page's complaint.