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House votes to expand board overseeing teen pages

January 20, 2007|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Four months after the congressional page scandal rocked Capitol Hill and helped dash Republican hopes for holding their majorities in Congress, the House voted unanimously Friday to expand the board that oversees the teenage interns and require that it meet regularly.

The House voted 416 to 0 to reorganize the House Page Board so that it has two congressional members from each party, the House clerk, the sergeant at arms, one parent of a page and one former page.

The eight-member board will be responsible for oversight of the roughly 70 pages -- usually 16-year-olds who spend a year running errands for members of Congress and their staffs while attending school in the nation's capital.

Passage of the measure, aimed at protecting a venerable program more than a century old, was the last item Democrats wanted to check off on a list of priorities for their first weeks in power. Their agenda was aimed at demonstrating their responsiveness to the ire that voters showed in November.

The page scandal began in late September, when it came to light that then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had written sexually explicit instant messages to several former male pages. Foley, who had also served as chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, quickly resigned, but the revelations snowballed as reporters tracked down former pages and outraged parents.

Before it was over, the scandal embroiled then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in questions about his oversight of the program, and whether Foley had been protected by a coterie of high-ranking GOP officials who failed to rein him in.

The House Ethics Committee investigated the Foley case and released its findings in December. It said that as former House clerk, Jeff Trandahl had warned Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), then chairman of the page board, that Foley was a "ticking time bomb" who had been confronted repeatedly about his conduct. Shimkus did not call a meeting of the page board, and according to the committee's report, he told a colleague "he believed he had done the right thing in 2005 based on the information he had" when he told Foley not to contact one of the pages again.

The ethics panel found "a significant number of instances where members, officers or employees failed to exercise appropriate diligence and oversight."

But the committee said that none had violated any House rules and recommended that no one be disciplined.

Exit polls from the 2006 election showed that 49% of voters cast their ballots out of concern for the war in Iraq, but 25% cited "moral issues."

During Friday's debate, several members expressed anger at Shimkus for not taking a more proactive approach.

"The board must not only be free of partisanship, but must function so all of the members have access" to allegations of misconduct, said House Administration Committee Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson).

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a page board member who was not told of the concerns about Foley, will remain on the reconstituted board.

"This legislation balances the partisan makeup of the page board," Capito said. "I believe this provision is important symbolically because it demonstrates that nothing the page board does in acting to keep children safe is partisan."

johanna.neuman@latimes.com

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