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Last Friday, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) went before the cameras in Batavia, Ill., and proclaimed that the ultimate responsibility for the scandal surrounding ex-Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) behavior with pages lay with him. “The buck stops here,” Hastert said.
But while Hastert may have stepped forward to take the blame, events of the past two weeks have shifted some of the burden — and the spotlight — to the man who is often at Hastert’s side but would prefer to remain out of sight, Scott Palmer.
After more than 20 years as Hastert’s chief of staff, Palmer is unquestionably the most powerful unelected official in the House and is described as extraordinarily devoted to protecting his boss.
Yet Hastert’s future may now rest on the actions of Palmer, specifically on a meeting that Palmer either did or did not have in 2002 or 2003 with Kirk Fordham, Foley’s then-chief of staff who now says he warned Palmer that Foley had a problem with Congressional pages.
Upset by the allegation, the press-averse Palmer has now gone into crisis-control mode along with the rest of the Speaker’s staff; more than one Republican has commented that Hastert’s office now resembles a “bunker.” Palmer has said the Fordham meeting simply “did not happen,” and his friends and longtime colleagues say they can’t imagine he is lying.
“Scott considers his word bond and I don’t think anybody would ever believe that he has not kept his word when he made this declaration” about the Fordham meeting, said lobbyist Dan Mattoon, a close friend to both Hastert and Palmer. “His veracity has never been questioned.”
Another longtime colleague said Palmer is “accessible and friendly, but he’ll be temperamental if he feels you’re questioning his integrity or his motivations. He cares deeply about doing the right thing.”
On a practical level, the 55-year-old Palmer is more powerful than many — perhaps most — elected Members of the House. Tall and burly, he is a commanding presence in a meeting room or a hallway and, when necessary, can browbeat lawmakers in a way that few other staff can. Like some other top aides, he often walks around the security magnetometers when entering the Capitol.
“He’s a very strong chief of staff,” said former Hastert Press Secretary John Feehery. “People can see that Palmer is a very important guy” in the leadership and that he is “a passionate person who believes in what he is doing.”
Other friends and colleagues described a slightly rougher side of Palmer, who — like Hastert — can flash a strong temper when he becomes exasperated and — unlike Hastert — will hole up in his office and smoke cigarettes when he is stressed.
Palmer gets particularly upset by anything that threatens or reflects badly on Hastert; he has been known to go on a rampage over leaks from Republican leadership meetings that cast Hastert in a bad light.
In his 2004 book “Speaker,” Hastert recounts taking the advice of a friend in 1979 and enlisting Palmer — then 29 and “a talented artist” who served as registrar and director of public information at Aurora University — to help with his first campaign for the state Assembly. Hastert lost his primary bid in March 1980 but then was elected in November after the GOP nominee suffered a stroke.