By LISA HOFFMAN
House Speaker Dennis Hastert came under increasing flak Monday for his handling of suggestive e-mails sent by former Florida Rep. Mark Foley, as some Republican lawmakers scrambled to ditch campaign contributions they had taken from Foley and otherwise distance themselves from the erupting scandal.
Even the FBI came in for criticism. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, revealed that it had sent the FBI copies of suggestive e-mails from Foley on July 21, the same day the group received them.
Those e-mails _ and a far more sexually graphic Instant Message conversation between Foley and a page that allegedly took place in 2003 _ rocketed into public view Friday.
CREW, whose membership includes several former House Democratic staffers, styles itself as a "progressive" answer to such conservative watchdog groups as Judicial Watch, which played a prominent role in several controversies involving President Bill Clinton, including the Whitewater financial investigation and the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuits.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, which has been in the forefront of exposing Foley’s Internet conversations with young congressional pages, questioned whether the GOP administration had tried to cover-up Foley’s conduct before it became public.
"Since the FBI has known about Rep. Foley’s e-mails since July, the question arises:… Was the administration more concerned with protecting a powerful ally in Congress than with protecting children?" said Sloan, a former prosecutor, who said the content of the e-mails, in which Foley asked a former page for a photo and inquired about his birthday wishes, was a "classic" ploy that sexual predators use.
Hastert summoned reporters to issue a statement Monday in which he defended the House leadership’s actions, saying it had acted expeditiously to question Foley about those suggestive, "overly friendly" e-mails, when they surfaced in August 2005.
But it wasn’t until Friday, when ABC News reported on them, that he and other GOP leaders learned of the sexually explicit instant message conversations, Hastert said. It was shortly after those became public that Foley, a six-term Republican from Fort Pierce, Fla., resigned.
"I repeat again, the Republican leaders of the House did not have them," Hastert said. "Anyone who had knowledge of these vile instant messages should have turned them over immediately."
Hastert said he directed the House clerk, who runs the page program, to establish a hotline that "parents, grandparents, pages, former pages … anyone who has a concern about improper conduct" can use to confidentially report such behavior. He did not give that phone number at the press conference, at which he took no questions.
Meanwhile, as Democrats continued to cast the scandal as evidence of Republican mismanagement of Congress, a parade of GOP lawmakers denounced Foley.
Several Republicans in difficult re-election races lost no time in announcing they were donating to charity the contributions they had received from Foley, who was a deputy whip on the House GOP leadership team and a source of $30,000 in campaign money to congressional candidates since he came to the House in 1994.
GOP Sen. George Allen of Virginia said he plans to give his $2,000 to charity, and Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico said she would donate her $8,000 in contributions to charities, as well. GOP Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio said she gave $5,000 back to Foley’s political action committee on Friday.
Other Republican lawmakers spoke out of their disgust at Foley’s actions. Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut said any party leader who was aware of Foley’s conduct and failed to act should step down.
Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee called for a review of how the House speaker’s office handled the initial complaints about Foley.
"(If) anybody in the speaker’s office in any way covered this up or was negligent in sharing this information with the proper authorities, they should be terminated immediately," Wamp said in an interview. "We have to make sure that the country sees this cancer taken out of the institution wherever children are involved."
(SHNS staff reporter Richard Powelson contributed to this report.)