WASHINGTON — The onetime top aide to former Rep. Mark Foley testified for more than four hours Thursday before lawmakers investigating whether House GOP leaders ignored early warnings about the congressman's behavior toward teenage pages.
The aide, Kirk Fordham, said last week that he had warned the office of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) about inappropriate conduct by the Florida Republican long before Foley's sexual overtures to the male congressional pages became public.
On Thursday, Fordham followed instructions from the House Ethics Committee that he say nothing about his sworn testimony. But his lawyer, Tim Heaphy, told reporters that Fordham's account of his actions to the panel was consistent with the comments he had made previously.
Fordham, who after serving as Foley's chief of staff left the office in 2004, said last week that he had alerted Hastert's staff more than two years ago that Foley had sought to develop inappropriate relationships with the pages.
Members of Hastert's office have disputed Fordham's claim. And Hastert has said he was told only a year ago about some electronic messages from Foley to pages that were relatively innocuous compared with those that forced Foley to resign from his House seat on Sept. 29.
The resulting scandal has rocked Republicans as they fight to retain their House and Senate majorities in November's election.
The credibility of Fordham's claim appears key to determining whether the GOP congressional leadership, while not knowing about Foley's sexually overt messages, received a warning in 2003 or early 2004 about him that should have spurred action.
The ethics committee's finding on this issue could determine whether the scandal results in further shake-ups within Republican ranks on Capitol Hill. Panel members have said they hope to complete their investigation within a relatively short time, although it is unclear whether they will finish it before the November election.
Fordham already has been interviewed by the FBI, which also is looking into the Foley case.
"He has been consistent in his accounts ... when he talked to the FBI" and on Thursday in his testimony, said Heaphy, Fordham's lawyer.
Earlier Thursday, the ethics panel questioned Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), one of the three members of the congressional board that oversees the page program. Capito said afterward that she testified that she had no knowledge of any of the questions that had been raised about Foley before news of his sexually explicit messages to pages made national headlines.
"I'm a member of the page board who was not informed of the e-mail messages that were sent," Capito said. "I want the investigation to go forth quickly and reach a conclusion."
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chairman of the page board, has said he learned last fall of messages that have been characterized as "over-friendly" that Foley sent to a Louisiana teenager who had served as a page.
These were the messages that Hastert has said were the first indication he had about Foley's inappropriate interest in pages.
Shimkus, in consultation with Hastert's office, has said he confronted Foley late last year and told him to cease contact with the Louisiana youth. But Shimkus has emphasized that he was unaware of the sexually explicit messages with other pages that have since surfaced.
Shimkus is to testify before the ethics panel today.
The scandal has caused some leaders of social conservative groups -- normally staunch allies of the GOP -- to question whether the handling of the Foley case by House Republican leaders showed that they were more concerned about minimizing potential political damage to the party than ensuring the well-being of the high school boys in the page program.
In the initial wake of the scandal, Hastert's position as speaker appeared in jeopardy. But he seems to have weathered that storm, at least for now.
Hastert tried to change the subject Thursday. While Fordham testified, the New York Stock Exchange closed with the Dow Jones industrial average at a new high, an event that Hastert spotlighted in a news release.
"Today's record-setting stock market comes right after news that Republicans have cut the [federal budget] deficit in half three years ahead of schedule," the release said. "In addition, gasoline prices continue to fall, and more people are working today than ever before. From Wall Street to Main Street, House Republicans remain committed to cutting spending, keeping taxes low and keeping this economy thriving."
Hastert staff members have said they do not know if he has been asked to appear before the ethics panel. The speaker has pledged to cooperate with all investigations.
Democrats are trying to rivet public attention on Foley's conduct and the Republican leadership's reaction. In a TV ad that began running Thursday in a Nevada congressional race, Democratic challenger Tessa Hafen accuses Republican incumbent Rep. Jon Porter of taking "thousands in contributions from House ... leaders who covered up the actions of sexual predator Mark Foley."
Another Republican who has become caught up in the scandal is Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, who as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee is leading the effort to retain the GOP's House majority.
Last year, Fordham became Reynolds' chief of staff. Amid the furor over Foley, Fordham resigned from that post last week. And Reynolds is now struggling in his own reelection bid.