updated 10/3/2006 10:57:17 PM ET 2006-10-04T02:57:17

When disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley announced he was entering rehab for treatment of alcoholism and “other behavioral problems,” some of those who have known him for years were shocked and suspicious, saying they rarely saw him drink.

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Another longtime friend, though, agreed that Foley had a drinking problem, and a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction noted that it’s not unusual for alcoholics to hide their drinking.

Among the skeptics, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a former colleague, said on Fox News Channel: “I don’t buy this at all. I think this is a phony defense. The fact is, I think he’s responsible for what he did here and I think it’s a gimmick.”

Foley abruptly resigned from Congress after being accused of sending lurid Internet messages to teenage boys who served as pages on Capitol Hill. The FBI and Florida law enforcement officials are investigating whether the Florida Republican violated any laws.

“Mark acknowledges that he is an alcoholic and as many alcoholics does not publicly display his consumption,” Foley’s attorney and longtime friend David Roth said.

Public life, private life
Some longtime acquaintances said they cannot reconcile Foley’s public and private lives, including the lurid communications and the claimed drinking problem.

“I have never seen Mark inebriated in public,” said Robin Bernstein, who has known Foley for 25 years. “I mean, he was a social drinker like most of us at cocktail parties with a glass of wine, but Mark was always ... the consummate gentleman.”

“The best thing he can do now is get help for the problem he hid from many of us. The man I knew was certainly an honorable man,” Bernstein said.

Longtime friend and Palm Beach socialite Petra Levin said she knew Foley had a drinking problem. “You know, a lot of people who have drinking problems, you mainly do not see them in public, and that’s why it becomes a problem,” she said.

Dr. Lauren Williams, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, said many alcoholics hide their drinking, especially when they are in positions of power.

“It really permeates the person’s life at different stages, and until something drastic happens, they don’t own up and say, ‘I have a problem,”’ Williams said.

‘Question of intent’
It is certainly not new for public figures to blame alcoholism or addiction for misdeeds. Mel Gibson blamed alcohol for his anti-Semitic tirade during a drunken driving arrest in California.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., checked himself into the Mayo Clinic for addiction to prescription pain drugs after a nighttime car crash near the Capitol that he claimed not to remember. Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, began treatment for alcohol dependency after admitting he improperly accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of trips, meals and sports tickets in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

While Foley’s attorney said the congressman never had “inappropriate sexual contact with a minor,” that may not matter, said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Florida.

He said Foley could face criminal charges under state or federal laws for “grooming” minors for sexual contact.

“There are going to be experts who look at these e-mails and say those are the unmistakable fingerprints of a predator, but others will call them fantasies. It’s a question of intent,” the former prosecutor said.

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