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THE NATION

Congressman Quits After Messages to Teens Revealed

The GOP's Mark Foley appeared headed for reelection in Florida before the sex scandal.

September 30, 2006|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a setback for the Republican Party as it focuses on November's midterm election, a senior Florida congressman resigned Friday following revelations of explicit messages he sent to a male teenage House page.

Rep. Mark Foley, who came to Washington with the GOP landslide in 1994 and became a staunch supporter of the entertainment industry, issued a brief statement expressing regret and then left Washington, departing abruptly while the House remained in session.

"I am deeply sorry, and I apologize for letting down my family and the people of Florida I have had the privilege to represent," said the 52-year-old congressman, who is single.

He didn't address the e-mails -- in which he asked the boy for a photo and described another teenage boy as being in "great shape" -- or a series of sexually suggestive instant messages he wrote to male pages that were revealed Friday by ABC News.

Pages are high school students from across the nation who serve mainly as messengers for lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The scandal added a tawdry note to the waning hours of a tumultuous congressional session, detracting from the efforts by Republican leaders to notch legislative victories as the party fights to hold on to its House and Senate majorities.

For the GOP, it also provided another embarrassment during a legislative session that began in January with the party trying to distance itself from lobbyist Jack Abramoff after he pleaded guilty to corruption charges -- including charges that he had tried to bribe members of Congress.

Late Friday, the House voted unanimously to ask the Ethics Committee to look into the matter after a move by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to get an immediate investigation was turned aside.

Democrats have been embarrassed by their own scandals this year, with Reps. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia and William J. Jefferson of Louisiana forced to give up committee assignments amid allegations of financial improprieties.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) did not respond Friday night to a report by the Associated Press that GOP congressional leaders had been warned nearly a year ago by one of Foley's Republican colleagues about potential questions concerning his behavior.

But Hastert was visibly uncomfortable discussing Foley at a news conference Friday afternoon that he had called to trumpet congressional passage of rules for questioning and prosecuting suspected terrorists.

"None of us are very happy," he said when asked about the Floridian.

Foley had been a clear favorite to win reelection in a district that includes part of Palm Beach County and stretches across south-central Florida. The scandal presumably boosts Democratic chances to win the seat, further clouding the GOP's bid to retain control of the House.

Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats in November to secure a majority. With competitive contests underway in dozens of districts, Republicans do not want to face a tough battle in a district they had thought would be secure.

Foley's troubles began surfacing publicly last weekend when a blogger posted the e-mails sent to the page. News reports on the e-mails followed, including stories in Foley's district.

A Foley spokesman on Thursday said the congressman's relatively unknown Democratic opponent, Tim Mahoney, had engaged in a smear campaign by questioning the appropriateness of the e-mails. The spokesman said the communications with the page were innocent attempts by Foley to help out a young person.

But ABC News reported Friday that it had obtained copies of instant messages to current and former male pages in which Foley made numerous explicit sexual references. In one case he asked: "Do I make you a little horny?"

Foley -- who had co-chaired the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus and championed a number of bills aimed at strengthening penalties against pedophiles and child pornographers -- announced his resignation shortly afterward.

Under state law, GOP leaders in Florida's 16th District can select a replacement, but that candidate must run as a write-in; Foley's name will remain on the ballot.

Under a newly enacted law, the selected Republican candidate will automatically receive all ballots that are cast for Foley.

"All of this makes this incredibly unpredictable," said Justin Sayfie, a former aide to Republican Gov. Jeb Bush who operates a political website in the state. "The normal rules of political prognostication don't apply."

Florida GOP officials plan to meet next week to select a new candidate.

With Foley's resignation, the GOP will be defending three House seats in November that once seemed virtually unassailable.

The party is struggling to hold on to the Texas seat once held by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who abandoned his reelection bid and resigned his seat after former aides pleaded guilty in the Abramoff influence-peddling scandal.

The GOP is also in a dogfight to keep the Ohio seat held by Rep. Bob Ney, who this month pleaded guilty in connection to the Abramoff scandal and has abandoned his reelection campaign.

noam.levey@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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