By LISA HOFFMAN
Opening a new investigative front in the Mark Foley sex scandal, the House ethics panel Thursday authorized a barrage of nearly 48 subpoenas for witnesses and documents, while, back home in Illinois, the besieged House speaker vowed to keep his post.
After a two-hour, closed-door meeting, the bipartisan House ethics committee announced a unanimous decision to cast a wide net across the House of Representatives to examine a swirl of allegations surrounding the case of the former Florida GOP lawmaker and his X-rated e-mails with young male congressional pages.
"Like all Americans, we are … appalled at the revelations of highly improper communications," panel chairman Rep. Doc Hastings, of Washington state, told reporters.
He and the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Howard Berman of California, promised an expeditious probe, with results expected within weeks. In an ironic coincidence, the panel met in a room just three doors down in the Capitol building from the House pages’ locker room.
In Batavia, Ill., House Speaker Dennis Hastert, whose own actions are certain to form a central part of the ethics probe of Foley’s conduct and GOP leaders’ responses, promised to cooperate in the investigation.
Hastert said the committee should focus on the source of transcripts of sexually graphic Instant Message conversations between Foley and the young men, which first surfaced publicly last Friday. A six-term House lawmaker and member of the GOP leadership, Foley, 52, abruptly resigned that same day.
Hastert and other Republicans are suspicious that Democrats leaked the salacious messages to influence the coming elections. But The Hill newspaper Thursday reported that a former House Republican staffer was the one who first shared the documents with the news media.
The speaker has been urged to resign his post by several angry GOP lawmakers but also defended by many more. He quashed rumors of an imminent announcement that he was stepping down. Instead, he said he was willing to take the blame for whatever lapses occurred.
"The bottom line is, I am taking responsibility for it because ultimately the buck stops here," Hastert said. Even so, he added, "I haven’t done anything wrong."
He also said he wants to appoint a prominent figure to lead an examination of the congressional page program, which brings high school students from across the country to serve as messengers for lawmakers and learn about Congress first hand. A suggestion that former FBI Director Louis Freeh could be recruited was nixed by House Democrats, according to the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, a skirmish between the FBI and one of the Foley whistleblowers erupted Thursday over how seriously the federal agents took transcripts of suggestive conversations between Foley and one of the pages, whose parents ultimately reported their desire last year to the page’s House sponsor that the communications end.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a self-described "progressive" advocacy group, said it gave the FBI the transcripts in July after interpreting the messages as a classical ploy by a sexual predator on the prowl for an innocent young victim.
CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said that the FBI spoke to her once thereafter but never again. On Monday, her group called on the Department of Justice to probe the FBI’s failure to investigate.
News reports this week quoted unnamed FBI officials as saying Sloan had given them copies of e-mails with pertinent information, such as the name of the recipient, blacked out. The officials also said CREW ignored a request to give the FBI more information.
Sloan called the FBI account a "cover-up story" to mask its inattention to the matter, and said the documents she forwarded were not blacked out. CREW never refused to provide anything to the federal agents, she said, and blasted the FBI for "lying."
Several telephone requests for comment from the FBI and the Justice Department were not returned.
Scripps Foundation reporter Hannah Guillaume contributed to this report.