WASHINGTON — A senior Republican congressional aide said Wednesday that he warned House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's office more than two years ago about "inappropriate behavior" by Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) toward Capitol Hill pages.
That would mean the speaker's office learned about Foley's conduct at least a year earlier than Hastert, an Illinois Republican, has acknowledged.
But a Hastert spokesman challenged the latest assertion in the scandal that has rocked the Republican Party since Foley resigned his House seat Friday, after news reports that he had sent sexually explicit messages to male pages.
Hastert has said that his staff learned of possible problems with Foley's conduct last fall, when a former page lodged a complaint. But with the speaker already under fire over his handling of the case, Wednesday's charge raised more questions about whether Hastert would be forced out of his leadership post.
It also will further fuel criticism that Hastert's office did not move aggressively enough to investigate Foley.
The charge that Hastert's office had been alerted to possible misconduct long before last fall came from Kirk Fordham, Foley's chief of staff for 10 years.
Fordham went to work last year for Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), head of the House Republican campaign committee and part of the GOP's congressional leadership team.
Fordham's link to Foley has raised questions about whether Reynolds and, by extension, Hastert and other House Republican leaders were more aware of questions about Foley than they have claimed to be.
Fordham resigned from Reynolds' staff Wednesday because of the uproar over Foley. In a statement, he said: "The fact is, even prior to the [complaint about Foley lodged last year], I had more than one conversation with senior staff at the highest level of the House of Representatives asking them to intervene."
Fordham did not specify when those contacts occurred. But his attorney, Tim Heaphy, told the Los Angeles Times that sometime before Fordham quit Foley's office in early 2004, the aide "received some information about Congressman Foley's inappropriate behavior with pages."
Fordham passed that information along to Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, Heaphy said.
Heaphy said Fordham did not know whether Palmer provided the information to Hastert. But the lawyer said Fordham did know that Palmer met with Foley.
Heaphy would not reveal more about the information Fordham passed along, saying that Fordham plans to share those details with investigators looking into Foley's conduct.
An acquaintance of Fordham's, who asked not be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said Wednesday that he recalled Fordham talking about taking his concerns to House officials at least two years ago.
The latest charge against Hastert, who has been laboring to explain why he did not do more to protect teenage pages from a member of his caucus, drew a quick denial from Palmer.
"What Kirk Fordham said did not happen," said Palmer, who has served as Hastert's chief aide since his election to the House in 1986 and is considered one of the most influential staffers on the Hill.
Since the furor over Foley erupted late last week, Hastert has maintained that officials in his office only learned of the lawmaker's potential misconduct last fall, when a Louisiana congressman contacted a Hastert aide about a series of e-mails Foley wrote to a page in the summer of 2005.
In the e-mails, which contained no explicit sexual content, Foley asked the boy to send him a photo and inquired about his age.
In Hastert's account, his aides responded by contacting the clerk of the House and the congressman who oversaw the page program -- who in turn told Foley to stop communicating with the page.
Hastert repeatedly has said that neither he nor his aides knew anything about the more-explicit instant messages that Foley reportedly sent to pages as far back as five years ago. Given the information his office had last fall, Hastert has said, it did all it could have been expected to do.
A Republican strategist with close ties to Capitol Hill said Wednesday that Fordham's assertion could drive Hastert from the speakership, which he has held since early 1999.
"If the claim holds up, it is hard to see how the speaker survives," said the strategist, who requested anonymity when discussing the party's leadership. "If he does survive, it is only because he does a major housecleaning."
Even before news spread of Fordham's claim, there were more signs of the political trouble confronting Hastert.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Wednesday that he would have been more aggressive than Hastert's staff last fall in looking into what Hastert later characterized as "over friendly" Foley e-mails to the page who complained about them.
"I think I could have given some good advice here, which is you have to be curious," said Blunt.
"You have to ask all the questions you can think of."