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Onetime Loyal Aide Now Stands to Undermine GOP

Former staffer Kirk Fordham says he'll tell all to the FBI in the Foley case, poising him to take on the leadership he once served.

October 05, 2006|Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — For 20 years, Kirk Fordham was a loyal staffer and strategist -- rising from his early days as a Capitol Hill intern to the coveted post of chief of staff to a senior congressman.

But Wednesday, amid a scandal that has rattled Capitol Hill and ended the political career of Fordham's longtime boss, former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), the 39-year-old aide emerged as a central player in a saga that could bring down the same House GOP leadership that he worked so tirelessly to serve.

No longer a behind-the-scenes operator, Fordham resigned his post as chief of staff to Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and declared his intention to tell all when the FBI calls.

"I have no reason to state anything other than the facts," Fordham wrote in an e-mail sent to The Times. "I have no congressman and no office to protect."

Fordham's assertion Wednesday that he informed House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's top aide more than two years ago of Foley's "inappropriate behavior" with teenage pages contradicted claims from the Illinois Republican and other leaders that they did not know the scope of Foley's problems until last week's news reports about sexually explicit instant messages he sent to boys as long as three years ago.

Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, denied Fordham's account in a terse, one-sentence statement.

But Fordham's decision to speak publicly, coming one day after President Bush offered a stout defense of Hastert amid calls for the speaker's resignation, handed more fodder to Democrats and others who are accusing the GOP of a coverup. And it put Fordham at the center of a burgeoning scandal during a heated election campaign that was shaping up as a possible defeat for the GOP majority.

For the soft-spoken Fordham, a role as a possible whistle-blower is an unfamiliar one -- but it is perhaps not surprising for a longtime Republican weary of his party's anti-gay political tactics and concerned that some were planning to make him take the fall. He spoke out Wednesday to denounce what he said were false charges from unnamed sources that he had tried to suppress details to protect his old boss.

A native of suburban Rochester, N.Y., he has worked for Republicans since his college days as an intern for his congressman, one-term Republican Fred J. Eckert, and as a volunteer stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors for a candidate for county executive.

Back then, he was a true-believing conservative.

"He did it all. He did it enthusiastically," said Stephen J. Minarik, chairman of the New York State Republican Committee.

In 1994, Fordham left the Hill to manage the congressional campaign of Foley, who at the time was a fast-rising but little-known Florida state senator.

The two shared something in common: Both were gay men with private struggles, trying to make their mark in a party that was anything but hospitable to homosexuals.

Foley won the race, despite an opponent who raised his sexual orientation as an issue. Fordham became his chief of staff and stayed with him for 10 years -- advising the congressman on media strategies and helping him become one of the GOP's most prolific fundraisers.

According to records compiled by the Center for Public Integrity, Fordham sometimes traveled with Foley on trips funded by GOP interest groups, including visits to Scotland, Cape Cod and Chicago.

Fordham's lawyer, Tim Heaphy, said Wednesday that the trips were solely business-related and the two were never romantically involved.

When Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) announced in February 2003 that he would seek his party's presidential nomination -- thus making it unlikely that he would run for reelection -- Foley, armed with a fat campaign account, decided to run for his seat. Fordham was his most important advisor.

As Foley began campaigning across the state, a South Florida weekly newspaper, the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, called on him to come out of the closet. It was Fordham who tried to persuade mainstream state political reporters to steer clear of the story, even as the White House moved aggressively to find a different candidate. When the Foley campaign accused Democratic activists of spreading the story, it was Fordham who singled out the "liberal gay press" for leading the charge, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

It was around that time that, based on Fordham's assertions this week, his loyalty was tested. Fordham now says he noticed "inappropriate behavior" by his boss related to the House page program and reported it to Hastert's office.

Foley dropped his Senate bid, citing his father's illness. In early 2004, Fordham moved to Orlando to work as finance director for the Senate candidate that the White House had recruited in Foley's stead: Mel Martinez, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

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