Hastert Speaks to Ethics Panel on Foley Scandal

House Speaker Dennis Hastert testifies before the ethics panel investigating the congressional page scandal. The closed-door session with the chamber's top officer may indicate the panel is coming to the end of its probe.

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House Speaker Dennis Hastert appeared today at the Ethics Panel investigating the congressional page scandal. He testified behind closed doors, as have all the witnesses before him.

NPR's Peter Overby reports from the capitol.

PETER OVERBY: As he left the basement hearing room today, Hastert faced the gaggle of reporters that gathers every day in the hallway. Hastert has maintained throughout the scandal that he did not remember learning of Mark Foley's computer messages to and from underage pages and former pages. Today, he did not address that issue, despite a hail of shouted questions.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): I answered all the questions they asked to the best of my ability. 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. So they needed to make sure that they asked all the questions of everybody. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of throng)

OVERBY: Hastert testified for about two and a half hours. Both Hastert and Foley are Republicans, and Hastert is trying to weather the scandal triggered by Foley's abrupt resignation September 29. The key issue for the committee is how and when the Republican leadership dealt with Foley's conduct. Hastert has said that he didn't hear anything about Foley's behavior until the fall of 2005 and then only the sketchiest of accounts.

Two other House leaders give different versions. They've already testified to the committee. Earlier today, it was Congressman Tom Reynolds of New York. He chairs the GOP Campaign Committee. Reynolds has said he warned Hastert about Foley in the spring on 2005. After testifying, he said obliquely that he was standing by that account.

Representative TOM REYNOLDS (Republican, New York): Earlier this month, I had several opportunities to answer your questions and tell you what I know. But the committee has asked us not to share the substance of our discussion.

OVERBY: Also at odds with Hastert is House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. He testified last week and stood by his story, again that he gave Hastert a warning in the spring of 2005. Similar reports have come from former House clerk Jeff Trandahl, who ran the page program, and from Kirk Fordham, once Foley's chief of staff. Their versions put the early warning back between 2001 and 2003. Yesterday, Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, testified. He stuck by his story, which is that Fordham's version of a meeting with him, quote, “did not happen.”

Hastert is far from the first House speaker to testify before the ethics committee. In 1997, the panel punished Republican Newt Gingrich in a probe of his fundraising. And in 1989, an ethics investigation of business deals forced Democratic speaker Jim Wright to resign.

The committee isn't likely to say anything about the investigation before the mid-term elections two weeks from today. Hastert says he expects to be re-elected as speaker if the Republicans keep control of the House.

Peter Overby, NPR News, The Capitol.

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