WASHINGTON — A senior congressional aide resigned Wednesday and said he told House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s office about former Rep. Mark Foley’s sexually charged correspondence with teenage pages more than three years ago, long before officials have acknowledged becoming aware of the issue.
The scandal surrounding Foley’s behavior continued to grow Wednesday as Republicans scrambled to stop the bleeding just five weeks before elections in which Democrats were already being projected to make significant gains in the House.
Late Wednesday, the No. 2 House Republican, Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, asked the House clerk to investigate allegations that Foley, R-Fla., who resigned last week, was intercepted by Capitol Police trying to enter the House pages’ dormitory while drunk late one night.
No further details were immediately available about the allegation, which was outlined in a letter Boehner sent to House Clerk Karen Haas and surfaced during a conference call Tuesday among House Republican leaders.
But Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, chairman of the Republican Conference, told NBC News that the lawmakers learned that the Republican director of the page program had “brought specific concerns” about Foley’s behavior to Haas’ attention.
Ex-Foley aide says he’s a scapegoat
The new allegation only added to Republicans’ headaches after Kirk Fordham, a top aide to Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-N.Y., said earlier in the day that he was resigning and speaking out to protect himself.
Foley quit last week after ABC News published sexually provocative e-mail and instant messages he sent to teenage male pages. Reynolds, a member of the Republican leadership, has struggled to avoid political damage after it was learned that he was told about Foley’s e-mail messages to a Louisiana page last year.
Accusing Republican congressional leaders of “trying to shift the blame on me,” Fordham acted Wednesday after ABC reported that Republican figures whom it did not identify were accusing him of trying to head off an investigation of Foley, whom he previously served as chief of staff for 10 years.
“This is categorically false,” Fordham, who counseled Foley to resign last week, said in a statement. “At no point — ever — did I ask anyone to block any inquiries into Foley’s actions or behavior. These sources know this allegation is false.”
Ethics committee to take up Foley case
The House ethics committee is scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss the allegations against Foley, who has acknowledged in recent days that he is gay and has said he has entered an alcohol rehabilitation facility.
Fordham’s disclosure Wednesday was significant because he was Foley’s closest aide for a decade before becoming the top aide to Reynolds.
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Saying that because he had resigned and had no one he needed to protect, Fordham promised to “fully cooperate with any and every investigation of Mr. Foley’s conduct. At the same time, I will fully disclose to the FBI and the House Ethics Committee any and all meetings and phone calls I had with senior staffers in the House Leadership about any of Foley’s inappropriate activities.”
Fordham said one of the officials he notified three years ago was “still employed by a senior House Republican Leader.”
“Rather than trying to shift the blame on me, those who are employed by these House Leaders should acknowledge what they know about their action or inaction in response to the information they knew about Mr. Foley prior to 2005,” he said.
Pressure on Hastert builds
Scott Palmer, Hastert’s chief of staff, denied Fordham’s allegation that he informed Hastert’s office about Foley’s correspondence at least a year earlier than House Republican leaders have acknowledged. “What Kirk Fordham said did not happen,” Palmer said through a spokesman.
The development added to the pressure on Hastert, who has said he did not recall being told about the nature of Foley’s behavior when his office was notified last autumn. Some conservative activists and several Republicans on Capitol Hill called this week for Hastert’s resignation .
Numerous law enforcement agencies have launched preliminary inquiries into whether Foley broke any laws in sending the messages, some of them sexually explicit, to male pages as young as 16 years old.
NBC’s Chip Reid reported that the Justice Department ordered House officials Wednesday to preserve all records related to Foley’s correspondence with teenagers. Such orders often are followed by search warrants and subpoenas and signal that investigators are moving closer to a criminal investigation.
Meanwhile, FBI agents have begun interviewing participants in the House page program, according to a law enforcement official who spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the investigation. NBC News has confirmed that the interview subjects include at least one former page in addition to current pages.
But it may be difficult to bring federal criminal charges against Foley, based on what is publicly known about the messages he sent.
One federal law criminalizes “enticement,” which it defines as inducing a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity. But NBC Justice Department correspondent Pete Williams reported that there was a catch: The age of consent in Washington is 16, so sexual activity with a 16-year-old in Washington is not a crime, assuming it is consensual.
“Based on the information we have today, which are simply sexually suggestive e-mail messages to people over the age of 16, it is going to be very difficult to make a criminal case out of that under existing federal law,” Mark Rasch, a former Justice Department prosecutor, told NBC News.
Higher consent age in Florida
However, the situation is different in Florida, where the state Department of Law Enforcement confirmed that it has begun its own preliminary inquiry. The age of consent there is 18, which means many of the pages Foley is accused of contacting would be considered minors.
MSNBC-TV has obtained a log of sexually explicit instant messages purportedly between Foley and a former page interviewed this week by the FBI. The messages were exchanged two years ago when the former page, Tyson Vivyan, was 24, but Vivyan told MSNBC’s Rita Cosby that he had exchanged similar messages with Foley as long ago as 1997, when he was 17.
Vivyan said he was not interested in a sexual relationship with the much older Foley. Every time he tried to turn the conversation away from sex, Foley would return to the topic, asking him to discuss what he was wearing and which sexual acts he enjoyed.
“I was completely shocked that someone of his position would conduct himself that way with someone my age,” Vivyan said.
NBC News has not been able to independently verify that the messages were from Foley, but it has independently confirmed that FBI agents in Atlanta interviewed Vivyan at his home Tuesday morning.
How many knew of messages?
Meanwhile, the origins of the scandal were further muddied Wednesday.
A liberal activist group, Citizens for Ethics, first asked for an investigation of Foley over the summer after it received a copy of a message Foley sent to a page sponsored by Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La. That message, which was unusually friendly in tone — but not sexually explicit — was the one that triggered the scandal Friday when ABC News reported it on its Web site, followed quickly by its reporting of more sexually charged instant messages to at least one other male page.
Melissa Sloan, director of the group, said Wednesday that no action was taken on the group’s complaint at the time. Then she revealed that Citizens for Ethics was not the only organization to have known about the messages several months ago.
In an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Sloan said her group received the message from “a different watchdog government organization,” raising the prospect that Foley’s correspondence was known widely outside the circle of Republican leaders in Congress at least several months ago.
Sloan would not identify the other group, saying it wished to remain anonymous.
MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson; NBC’s Chip Reid, Pete Williams, Jim Popkin and Michael Viqueira; and MSNBC-TV’s Rita Cosby and Chris Matthews contributed to this report.
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