WASHINGTON — Years before sexually explicit electronic messages sent by Rep. Mark Foley to teenage House pages became public last week, some on Capitol Hill say, the Florida Republican was known to have a special interest in younger men.
In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, several current and former congressional employees and others said they recalled Foley approaching young male pages, aides and interns at parties and other venues.
"Almost the first day I got there I was warned," said Mark Beck-Heyman, a San Diego native who served as a page in the House of Representatives in the summer of 1995. "It was no secret that Foley had a special interest in male pages," said Beck-Heyman, adding that Foley, who is now 52, on several occasions asked him out for ice cream.
Another former congressional staff member said he too had been the object of Foley's advances. "It was so well known around the House. Pages passed it along from class to class," said the former aide, adding that when he was 18 a few years ago and working as an intern, Foley approached him at a bar near the Capitol and asked for his e-mail address.
Like most of those willing to discuss Foley, the young man asked not to be named because of concern that speaking openly could harm his career.
Foley resigned from office Friday. His attorney said Monday that Foley had checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation center. In a statement, Foley said: "I strongly believe that I'm an alcoholic and have accepted the need for immediate treatment for alcoholism and other behavioral problems."
News reports about the messages Foley sent sparked a furor that continues to build. Much of the controversy centers on whether Republican congressional leaders responded aggressively enough when they learned late last year about less salacious e-mails Foley had sent to another page. In those e-mails, Foley asked the page to send a photo of himself and asked how old he was.
The GOP leaders said Monday, as they have since Foley resigned, that the matter had been appropriately handled last year, when the House clerk and congressman in charge of the page program told Foley to cease contact with the page. They also have said they knew nothing about more explicit instant messages -- in which Foley graphically discussed sex -- and had no reason to be suspicious about Foley's behavior.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), in public comments Monday, called the explicit messages "vile and repulsive, both to myself and to my colleagues." He added: "No one in the Republican leadership saw those messages until last Friday, when ABC News released them to the public.''
ABC reported Monday that in another set of instant messages, Foley tried to arrange a rendezvous with another young teenage page.
Hastert also held a rare off-camera question-and-answer session with reporters Monday, during which he said that Foley's inappropriate contacts with pages appeared to have occurred after the teenagers had left Washington and returned home.
"I understand that these are pages that have all left the program," Hastert said. "This was after the fact. And you know -- woulda, coulda, shoulda."
At least one Republican lawmaker, however, has said that GOP lawmakers should have dug deeper into Foley's behavior months ago.
West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who sits on the board overseeing the page program but who has said she was not told of any of the e-mails, told the Charleston Gazette over the weekend that even the less-explicit ones should have been viewed as suspicious
"I don't think it would pass the sniff test," she told the newspaper. "Even asking those questions -- that is not normal between a 52-year-old adult and a 16-year-old.... It's not like they're family friends or anything. I think it would raise some serious questions."
The current and former congressional staffers interviewed by The Times, who are from both parties, said it was well known within the Capitol's gay community that Foley was interested in young men.
"Among the gay political community, there was a pretty wide understanding that he had an eye for the interns and the younger staff," said one former congressional staffer.
The staffers said Foley -- who was elected to the House in 1994 and is not openly gay -- would seek out the young men in bars, restaurants and even around the Capitol.
The former intern said he was approached by Foley at Bullfeathers, a popular restaurant and bar a few blocks from the Capitol. "He asked for e-mail, which I gave him," said the young man. "I was 18. To have a congressman take an interest in you seemed pretty cool."
But he said he quickly regretted it. Foley began sending him e-mails, asking for more information about him. "It was a patented act," he said. He stopped responding to Foley soon afterward.