For outgoing Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and his inner circle, as well as retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), Friday’s report by the House ethics committee on its investigation of former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) was a stinging insult coming just weeks after a crippling injury.
The Foley sex scandal, which first broke in late September, helped seal the fate of the House Republican majority and put the final stake in Hastert’s eight-year reign as Speaker. The weeks-long media furor surrounding the release of sexually graphic electronic messages between Foley and former House pages drowned out Republican attempts to counter the Democratic message on Iraq, and further cemented the public’s impression that GOP leaders were corrupt and out of touch with the needs of average Americans.
While Democratic leaders say they have no interest in revisiting the issue during the next Congress, Friday’s report by the four-member investigative subcommittee, led by Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman and ranking member of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, paints a picture of a Speaker and GOP hierarchy that alternately ignored, minimized, and then tried to cover up their knowledge of Foley’s behavior.
Reacting to Friday’s report, Hastert focused on the fact that the panel did not find any formal ethics violations had been committed.
“I am glad the committee made clear that there was no violation of any House rules by any Member or staff,” Hastert said in a statement.
While not saying outright that Hastert or his chief of staff, Scott Palmer, lied to the panel about their knowledge of Foley’s inappropriate e-mail contacts with current or former House pages, the ethics committee clearly did not find their testimony on the matter credible.
Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) told the panel that they had personally informed Hastert of the existence of possibly inappropriate, although non-graphic, e-mails between Foley and a former page.
Hastert disputed their testimony, said he had no notes or recollection of any such conversations, but in the end, the panel sided with Boehner and Reynolds more than Hastert.
The ethics committee also believed Foley’s former chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, over Palmer. Fordham told investigators that he met personally with Palmer in late 2002 or early 2003 in a bid to get Palmer’s help reining in Foley’s inappropriate behavior, and that Palmer subsequently met with Foley. Palmer flatly denied the allegations, but in the end, the committee found “the weight of evidence” supported Fordham’s version of events over the one offered by Palmer. Fordham’s story was also backed up by Jeff Trandahl, the former Clerk of the House and a key figure in the Foley scandal.
Trandahl also told members of the investigative subcommittee that he was concerned about Hastert counsel Ted Van Der Meid’s own “over-involvement with pages assigned to the Speaker’s office.” Van Der Meid was personally criticized in Friday’s report for his “inexplicable lack of interest in the e-mails and the resolution of the matter with Rep. Foley,” a strong rebuke for the longtime House aide and former chief counsel of the House ethics panel.
In addition, the ethics committee also was troubled by a meeting of GOP leaders, Members and staffers linked to the scandal that took place shortly after Foley resigned from the House and an investigation had been approved by the chamber. Reynolds refused to attend that meeting, although his counsel, Randy Evans, later helped the Speaker’s office construct its own timeline laying out how it handled the Foley matter.
“The Investigative Subcommittee understands the need in a political environment to respond quickly to perceived negative press reports,” the committee report stated. “However, in the Investigative Subcommittee’s view, the efforts by the Speaker’s office to prepare a statement under the direction of Evans could have had the additional effect of inhibiting the Investigative Subcommittee’s ability to secure evidence from witnesses without interference resulting from efforts to compare and contrast recollections prior to testimony before the Committee.”
Evans later appeared before the ethics committee as Hastert’s counsel, as well as counsel to two of his aides. The committee has suggested changing panel rules to prevent an attorney from representing more than one witness who has to testify before it.
Kolbe — who is still under federal investigation for his own personal dealings with former pages, including a 1996 trip to the Grand Canyon — was criticized in Friday’s report for failing to ask for information about a sexually graphic electronic message sent by Foley to a former page back in 2001.
Kolbe testified that he had his staff contact Foley’s office and Trandahl and then let the matter drop.
And when that former page contacted Kolbe on Sept. 29, 2006, once the Foley scandal had become public and the Florida Republican had stepped down, Kolbe reportedly told the man, now a college student, that “it is best that you don’t even bring this up with anybody. ... [T]here is no good that can come from it if you actually talk about this. The man has resigned anyway.”
Kolbe acknowledged speaking to the former page but “says that the page had already decided that he was not going to report the [instant message] and that he merely responded, ‘That’s your decision.’”
Kolbe then contacted the former page when he became aware that The Washington Post was going to run a story about the 2001 incident with Foley, but denied that he had any further contact with the man and advised him to retain a lawyer.
The subcommittee “heard some testimony regarding the [1996 allegations against Kolbe], but Rep. Kolbe did not provide full and complete testimony regarding the allegations citing the pending federal inquiry.”
While Kolbe soon will be outside the ethics committee’s jurisdiction, the subcommittee found that Kolbe “should have asked for the instant message (if he did not already have it) in order to make sure that his response was the correct one.”
In a statement released Friday, Kolbe said, “The report demonstrates that members of my office and I took prompt action in 2001 to address the complaint that was brought to our attention by a college student from my district who had previously served as a House Page.
“As I testified before the committee, I did not review a copy of the communication Congressman Foley sent the college student and I never knew whether or not it was sexually explicit. The simple fact that Foley had made the student feel uncomfortable was enough for me to take action by, among other things, notifying the Clerk of the House.
“[Hastings] today said that ‘doing the right thing is the only acceptable option.’ I agree, and that is precisely what I did in response to the information provided to me and to those on my staff.”
But one Republican insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described the committee report as a “shrewd political document” that went after Hastert, Kolbe, Palmer and Van Der Meid, all of whom are leaving or are expected to leave the House soon.
“They [the committee] kicked people who don’t care anymore,” said the GOP source, who has close ties to Hastert’s office. “Hastert doesn’t care, and the other guys don’t care either. They’re just happy that the whole thing is over and they can leave now. This doesn’t hurt them at all.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.