By ANDREW TAYLOR and LARA JAKES JORDAN
The Justice Department ordered House officials to "preserve all records" related to disgraced Rep. Mark Foley’s electronic correspondence with teenagers, intensifying an investigation into a scandal rocking Republicans five weeks before midterm elections.
The development came as a congressional aide who counseled Foley to resign last week submitted his own resignation Wednesday. "I never attempted to prevent any inquiries or investigation," Kirk Fordham said in a statement.
Fordham was once Foley’s chief of staff. At the time of his resignation he had been serving in the same capacity for Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., a member of the GOP leadership who has struggled to avoid political damage in the scandal’s fallout.
Republicans have been struggling to put the scandal behind them, but another member of the leadership, Rep Roy Blunt of Missouri, said pointedly during the day he would have handled the entire matter differently than Speaker Dennis Hastert did, had he known about the complaints when they were first raised last year.
"I think I could have given some good advice here, which is you have to be curious. You have to ask all the questions you can think of," Blunt said. "You absolutely can’t decide not to look into activities because one individual’s parents don’t want you to."
Foley resigned last week after he was reported to have sent salacious electronic messages to teenage male pages. He has checked into an undisclosed facility for treatment of alcoholism, leaving behind a mushrooming political scandal and legal investigation.
Acting U.S. Attorney Jeff Taylor for the District of Columbia sought protection of the records in a three-page letter to House counsel Geraldine Gennet, according to a Justice official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Such letters often are followed by search warrants and subpoenas, and signal that investigators are moving closer to a criminal investigation.
The request was aimed at averting a conflict with the House similar to a standoff in May when FBI agents raided Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson’s office seeking information in a bribery investigation.
Meanwhile, FBI agents have begun interviewing participants in the House page program, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. The official declined to say whether the interviews were limited to current pages or included former pages.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos stressed that the investigation is still preliminary. Also, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed that it has begun its own preliminary inquiry. Spokesman Tom Berlinger said the case is in its initial stages and is not a full-blown criminal inquiry.
Fordham played a key role in fast-developing events late last week. Initially, Foley was reported to have written overly friendly — not sexually explicit — e-mails to a former Capitol page. A day later, ABC news followed up with a report that said the Florida lawmaker had also sent sexually explicit instant messages to at least one other male page.
He said earlier this week he asked Foley about the sexually explicit instant messages, and the congressman confirmed they were probably his.
"Like so many, I feel betrayed by Mark Foley’s indefensible behavior," he said. He blamed Democrats for seeking to make a political issue of the matter in Reynolds’ re-election campaign, "and I will not let them do so."
There were signs of concern among Republicans, as well.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona called for a group of former senators and others to investigate how the House handled the affair.
"We need to move forward quickly and we need to reach conclusions and recommendations about who is responsible," McCain said during a campaign speech for Sen. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. "I think it needs to be addressed by people who are credible."
Some other Republicans rallied to the speaker. The chairmen of two coalitions of social and fiscal conservatives in Congress said he should not step down. "Speaker Hastert is a man of integrity," Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., said in a joint statement.
Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., the congressman who sponsored the page at the heart of the furor, said Hastert "knew about the e-mails that we knew about," including one in which Foley asked the page to send his picture. But he quickly backed off that comment, saying he discussed the e-mails with Hastert’s aides, not the speaker himself.
"I guess that’s a poor choice of words that I made there," he told AP.
Hastert has insisted he not know about the e-mails that were discussed with his staff.
Alexander said in an interview he first took up the matter after receiving press inquiries in November, when he told Hastert’s staff and the parents of the 16-year-old boy who received the e-mails. The parents wanted the correspondence stopped but apparently did not want to take the matter further.
After a second round of press inquiries in the spring, Alexander said, he again notified the family and discussed the e-mails with the new majority leader, John Boehner of Ohio, on the House floor during a vote.
Alexander said Boehner turned first to Reynolds, the architect of the Republican midterm election strategy.
"I went to Boehner before Reynolds," Alexander told AP. "He sent Reynolds to me to talk about it. Within a minute Reynolds and I were talking."
Boehner and Reynolds have both said they had spoken with Hastert about a complaint concerning a former page from Louisiana last spring, after Alexander told them about it.
The uproar that followed Foley’s resignation has enveloped Republicans who were already at risk at losing control of Congress in elections five weeks away.
Conservative activist Richard A. Viguerie was among those who called for Hastert to step down. "The fact that they just walked away from this, it sounds like they were trying to protect one of their own members rather than these young boys," Viguerie said on Fox News.
Hastert has he would not quit.
Alexander defended Hastert on Wednesday, as well as his own response.
"Hey, what else was I supposed to do?" Alexander asked. "I was very uncomfortable even talking to somebody in the speaker’s office."
AP writers Laurie Kellman in Washington, Marus Kabel in Springfield, Mo., and Michelle Smith in Providence, R.I., contributed to this story.