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Hastert gets grilled by ethics panel

The House speaker testifies for 2 1/2 hours on what he knew of the Foley scandal.

First Since Gingrich

October 25, 2006|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Speaker J. Dennis Hastert on Tuesday became the first leader of the House of Representatives in a decade to testify before its ethics committee, fielding hours of questions about what he knew about former Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate approaches to teenage pages and when he knew it.

As public dismay over Republican leadership of Congress has risen, Hastert has faced an increasing number of questions about whether he and other party leaders ignored or covered up evidence of Foley's improper behavior.

"I answered all the questions they asked to the best of my ability," the Illinois Republican said after more than 2 1/2 hours before the committee. "I also said that they needed to move quickly to get to the bottom of this issue, including who knew about the sexually explicit messages and when they knew about it."

At least two Republican leaders -- Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, who is leading the party's House reelection effort, and House Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio -- have said that they told Hastert last year that they were concerned about Foley's behavior after they learned about "overly friendly" e-mails that Foley, a Florida Republican, sent to one former male page.

Hastert has said that he does not recall those conversations, but he does not dispute that he may have forgotten them. He has repeatedly hinted that others who knew about the e-mails did not come forward.

He said Tuesday that he told the panel members "they needed to make sure that they asked all the questions of everybody."

The committee is investigating whether any House member or staffer knew of Foley's improper behavior and failed to do anything about it. It has no authority over Foley, who resigned from the House on Sept. 29 -- the day that ABC News released an explicitly sexual instant-message exchange with another former page that was far more graphic than the e-mails.

Foley has since acknowledged that he is gay, sought treatment for alcoholism, and accused a clergyman of molesting him in his youth.

The ethics committee also heard Tuesday from Reynolds, who in brief remarks afterward declined to characterize either the questions or his answers.

"I was happy to voluntarily do my part to assist in their inquiry," Reynolds said. "A full and fair investigation of the facts is vital to ensuring the integrity of this institution."

The Foley scandal has forced congressional Republican leaders onto the defensive just two weeks before an election in which Democrats have their best chance in years of gaining a majority in the House or the Senate -- or both.

A four-member subcommittee of the panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct -- has taken hours of testimony from dozens of witnesses over the last three weeks in an effort to learn whether any members of Congress improperly failed to act to protect the pages, who spend all or part of their junior year in high school as messengers on Capitol Hill. They live in a dormitory near the Capitol grounds.

Earlier this week, Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, testified before the committee for more than six hours. Last week the panel heard from Boehner and Jeff Trandahl, who as clerk of the House administered the page program before he left Congress last year.

Foley's former chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, told the committee that he informed Hastert's staff as far back as three years ago that his former boss' behavior toward current and former pages was inappropriate. It is not known whether other witnesses have corroborated his account.

The last appearance by a House speaker before the House Ethics Committee was when Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was questioned about financial improprieties involving a college course and a book deal. He was reprimanded by the committee and ordered to pay a $300,000 penalty in January 1997.

maura.reynolds@latimes.com

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