WASHINGTON — The Justice Department's inspector general admonished the FBI on Monday for its handling of the page scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley, saying the bureau failed to follow up on suggestive e-mails between the Florida Republican and a former male page and gave "inaccurate" public statements about the case.
The watchdog report was triggered by a complaint filed by a nonprofit advocacy group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which had sent the FBI copies of e-mails between Foley and a former page last summer. The e-mails were sent two months before the scandal became public and forced the lawmaker to resign after a series of sexually explicit messages surfaced.
The FBI dismissed the early e-mails, the inspector general found, because agents did not believe they showed evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The FBI later launched an investigation, which is pending.
In the e-mails, Foley beckons a former page to e-mail him a picture of himself and asks what he might like for his birthday. He also comments about another page being "in really great shape" and seeming "much older than his age."
The e-mails also included complaints about Foley from a former page who told a House employee that Foley's e-mails had "freaked me out" and calling the content of his messages "sick."
The inspector general found that the tip was handled by a senior supervisory agent in the cyber crimes division of the FBI Washington field office who found the messages "odd" but not indicative of any criminal wrongdoing because, the agent said, the law in the District of Columbia permits sexual relations between an adult and a 16-year-old -- the minimum age for pages.
The report found that the decision not to investigate "fell within the range of discretion" afforded supervisory agents and "did not constitute misconduct." But it also found the messages "at a minimum" to be "unusual" and that the FBI should have taken some action.
"The e-mails provided enough troubling indications on their face, particularly given the position of trust and authority that Foley held with respect to House pages, that a better practice for the FBI would have been to take at least some follow-up," the inspector general found.
The report also noted that, notwithstanding the law in the district, three of the eight states from which the e-mails were sent or received would have made sexual conduct between Foley and a 16-year-old a crime.
The report also criticized the bureau for public comments it made about the advocacy group's complaint.
Justice officials said at the time that the group had provided "heavily redacted" e-mails and refused to provide information about their source, indicating that was the reason the FBI did not pursue an investigation earlier.
The inspector general's office "concluded that such statements were not accurate. The e-mails were not heavily redacted and the evidence showed that the FBI did not seek additional information from" the advocacy group, the report found.
The inspector general "was unable to determine who was responsible for making the inaccurate statements," the report said, and concluded that the inaccuracies were caused by "a misinterpretation of the description of events that was disseminated within the FBI."
Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, said: "Not only did the FBI fail to investigate the possible sexual abuse of minors by a sitting member of Congress, the bureau then tried to cover up its shocking inaction by blaming" the advocacy group.
The FBI said it would study the report. "The FBI shares the [inspector general's] interest in ensuring that information regarding potential criminal activity is evaluated objectively and in conformance with established policies and practices," the bureau said in a statement. "Accordingly, the FBI will carefully examine the ... review for any changes to existing policies or procedures that may be warranted."