With Election Looming, GOP Distracted by Foley

Republican congressional leaders had hoped to spend this week campaigning for the midterm elections, which are five weeks away. Instead, they are struggling to contain the fallout over Mark Foley, the Florida congressman who sent sexually explicit messages to a former page.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne.

Republican congressional leaders are struggling to contain the fallout over Mark Foley, the Florida congressman who resigned after being confronted with sexually explicit messages he sent to a former congressional page. House GOP leaders say they were surprised and disgusted by the explicit messages made public this week, but admit they were aware that Foley was in e-mail contact with teenage male pages. Now come the questions - what did they know and why didn't they act? Democrats are accusing Republican leaders of a cover-up.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Even as Congressman Foley sent word through an attorney that he was seeking treatment for alcoholism and related behavioral problems, House Speaker Dennis Hastert was dealing with some issues of his own. What did he know of Foley's contacts with minor male pages and when did he know it? After a meeting with the Republican congressman who chairs the panel overseeing the congressional page program, Hastert said the messages Foley sent were vile and repulsive.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): Anyone who had knowledge of these instant messages should have turned them over to authorities immediately so that kids could be protected. I repeat again: The Republican leaders of the House did not have them. We have all said so and on the record.

NAYLOR: But Republican leaders had plenty of other warnings about Foley's behavior dating back as far as 2001, according to ABC News.

Five years ago, a Republican staff member was warning pages to watch out for Congressman Foley. GOP leaders were also made aware of e-mails Foley sent a 16-year-old former page from Louisiana in the summer of 2005. Hastert says he doesn't remember being told about this personally, although he also said he did not dispute the report. After being spoken to about what have been called overly friendly e-mails, Foley was told to stop communicating with the boy in question. Hastert yesterday admitted that Foley has misled him and many others.

Rep. HASTERT: Congressman Foley duped a lot of people. He deceived the good men and women in organizations around the country with whom he worked to strengthen our child predator law. I have known him for all the years he served in this House, and he deceived me, too.

NAYLOR: Critics, though, wonder why Hastert and other GOP leaders were deceived so easily and what other considerations may have led them to keep the Foley case under wraps. The group Citizens For Ethics And Responsibility in Washington says it obtained Foley's e-mails from a congressional staffer months ago and sent them to the FBI's Washington Field Office back in July. Melanie Sloan is the group's executive director.

Ms. MELANIE SLOAN (Executive Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington): Even those e-mails, the initial e-mails, were enough to raise concerns for me, and I believe should have raised concerns for anybody who read them. They were just not the normal sort of e-mails a grown man would write to a 16-year-old boy to whom he's not related.

NAYLOR: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said yesterday the FBI has just begun a preliminary inquiry into Foley's conduct. So given the lapse since the earlier warning signs, Democrats are charging cover-up. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid issued a statement calling on GOP congressional leaders to come clean.

Meanwhile, several Republican members of Congress running for reelection are feeling the heat. At least five, including Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia - no stranger to political controversy - have returned campaign contributions from Foley, who had his own political action committee dispensing money to colleagues. Other Republicans getting rid of their Foley money include Heather Wilson on New Mexico, Deborah Pryce of Ohio and Clay Shaw of Florida -all among the House incumbents viewed as most vulnerable in the midterm elections five weeks from today.

One group that says it's keeping the money it got from Foley is the National Republican Campaign Committee, which received more than half a million dollars from Foley over the past decade. A spokesman says it's using the funds to help elect Republicans all across the country.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

AMOS: Back in Foley's district, Republican Joe Negron has one of the hardest jobs this political season. He replaces the disgraced former representative in the election, but Foley's name remains on the ballot.

Under state law it's too late to change the name, so Negron has to convince voters that a vote for Foley is a actually a vote for him. Said Negron: Obviously, I'd rather have my name on the ballot. His Democratic challenger has already started airing campaign ads that refer to the scandal.

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