By THOMAS HARGROVE
Legal experts say it’s unclear if former Rep. Mark Foley’s explicit Internet conversation with a male teenager who had served as a congressional page could pose a violation of state or federal laws.
The Florida Republican might be liable under tough, new federal prohibitions against sexual predators who use the Internet to contact minors, provisions in the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 that Foley was instrumental in passing, these experts say.
"We’ve been looking at this, and it’s just not clear," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "There are a host of statutes involved."
David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, agreed.
"The question is whether this (Internet exchange) was really an overture. And since the kid apparently was 16, most of the age-of-consent laws will make it impossible for this to be a violation, although that varies from state to state," Finkelhor said.
Foley resigned unexpectedly Friday after ABC News reporters showed him an exchange of instant messages he apparently had with a 16-year-old former House page in 2003.
But even if an older man had consensual sex with a minor _ something that has not been alleged in this case _ most states’ age of consent would allow a sex union between a 52-year-old man and a 16-year-old male.
The new laws against use of the Internet to entice children have added an additional level of uncertainty.
"There are a bunch of new laws against using the Internet," Finkelhor said. "Someone has to go through them to see what is there."
Exactly what Foley has done is unclear. A series of Internet instant messages between the former page and the congressman who used the online name "Maf54" graphically discussed male-to-male sex.
At one point, "Maf54" said he would "love to slip them (the page’s T-shirt and shorts) off you" and to grab "the one-eyed snake."
"Not tonight," the page replied. "Don’t get to (sic) excited."
The FBI, which confirmed Sunday that it was conducting a preliminary investigation into Foley at the request of the House Republican leadership, will not speculate on what law Foley might or might not have broken.
"Officially, all we are able to say is that we are conducting an assessment or a preliminary investigation to determine if there has been any violation of federal law," said spokesman Stephen Kodak.
He would not say if federal investigators were considering if Foley could have violated the new child protection act.
Foley attended the July 27 White House signing ceremony for the law that was named after the victim of a brutal 1981 child kidnapping and murder in Florida.
"The bill I sign today will make it harder for sex predators to reach our children on the Internet. Some sex predators use this technology to make contact with potential victims," President Bush said then.
The bill created regional Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces to provide funding and training for police and prosecutors to combat "sexual exploitation of minors on the Internet" and strengthened penalties for a variety of crimes against children.