WASHINGTON — When a complaint about Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate interest in a teenage former page was brought to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's office last year, it ended up on the desks of two of the Illinois Republican's most trusted lieutenants.
The two men -- Hastert's chief political advisor and his senior legal counsel -- along with Hastert's longtime chief of staff, are the speaker's go-to team to resolve problems.
Today, what this trio of senior aides knew about Foley's interest in teenage pages and what they did about it may determine whether the story remains a sexual scandal or grows into one of broader deception and coverup, as Hastert's critics have charged.
Fiercely loyal to the speaker and the Republican Party, veteran aides Scott Palmer, Mike Stokke and Ted Van Der Meid have for years helped Hastert tend to his Republican flock -- and protect its members when they run into trouble.
According to several current and former congressional staffers, the group played a central role in the effort to rewrite House rules so then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay could retain his leadership post even if he were indicted. The team also helped engineer the elimination of a congressional subcommittee critical of the cost of a construction project favored by Hastert and others.
The speaker's office has acknowledged that Deputy Chief of Staff Stokke and counsel Van Der Meid fielded a complaint last fall that Foley had been sending provocative e-mails to a former page in Louisiana. And Palmer, Hastert's chief of staff, is facing accusations that he was alerted to Foley's behavior by a senior Foley aide as early as 2003.
Now, leaders of the House Ethics Committee -- which has been charged with investigating the Foley case -- say they plan to look broadly at how House leaders handled the issue.
If they do, that may prove troublesome to the speaker and his party, said congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, a critic of Hastert's leadership. "To an awful lot of people around Capitol Hill, when they look at Palmer and Van Der Meid, they see Ehrlichman and Haldeman," Ornstein said, invoking the names of two principals in the Watergate scandal of a generation ago.
Hastert's office has repeatedly denied any suggestion of a coverup since Foley's resignation Sept. 29 amid reports that he sent sexually explicit messages to former pages.
Palmer said he never received any warning about Foley three years ago. And the speaker has maintained that Stokke and Van Der Meid appropriately forwarded the complaint they received to officials who oversaw the page program.
None of Hastert's aides responded to interview requests for this report.
Being a political problem for Hastert is an odd position for Palmer, Stokke and Van Der Meid.
The three aides, each of whom has decades of experience in politics, are usually the men who take care of problems for a speaker who often leaves the nitty-gritty job of managing House business to others.
"It's been one of the secrets of his success," former Rep. Bill Paxon, a New York Republican who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee in the early '90s, said of the effectiveness of the Hastert team.
Palmer, 55, has been with Hastert the longest, working with the then-wrestling coach during Hastert's initial run for the Illinois state Legislature in 1980. He came to Washington with Hastert in 1986, and was by his side when Hastert took the speaker's gavel in 1998.
Highly focused, determined and sometimes quick to anger, Palmer is widely considered among the most powerful chiefs of staff in the speaker's office in decades.
"Very few things happened or went through the speaker's office without Scott having some level of involvement.... He is Denny's alter ego," one former House Republican aide said.
Like many current and former congressional staff members who still do business with the speaker, the aide asked not to be identified while talking frankly about Hastert's staff.
Stokke, 45, joined Hastert's team in 1997 after spending his 20s and early 30s working in Illinois politics.
A native of a small town in central Illinois, Stokke is more laid-back than Palmer, people who know the two men say. But Stokke plays a pivotal role for a speaker who travels widely around the country to help raise money and campaign for members of the caucus.
"He's the guy who travels with Hastert when he does the rubber-chicken circuit," said another former Hastert aide. "He views everything through the political prism ... knows all the races."
Van Der Meid, 49, became Hastert's chief legal advisor in 1999 after 15 years on Capitol Hill as a staffer and counsel to the House Ethics Committee that is now investigating the Foley case.
A tactician with a lawyer's appreciation for the power of legislative rules and structures, Van Der Meid is also seen as highly partisan. And when trouble arises, those who have worked with him say, he is often deployed to deal with it.