Willful Ignorance But No Rules Broken

By Jaketapper

Dec 8, 2006 5:29pm

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct released its report investigating the scandal surrounding the inappropriate contact former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had with congressional pages, finding that "a pattern of conduct was exhibited among many individuals to remain willfully ignorant" of Foley’s behavior though no "current House Members of employees violated the House Code of Official Conduct." The chairmen of the ethics committee, Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), effusively praised each other and the bipartisan committee’s work over the previous nine weeks, but would take no questions, preferring to let the 89-page report speak for itself. They said their investigation was completed after 50 interviews and depositions, 3,000 pages worth of transcribed interviews, and more than 100 hours of testimony and deliberations. In what some critics see as a way of letting his colleagues’ behavior off the hook, Hastings in prepared remarks said that "20/20 hindsight is easy" and that "doing the right thing…can be very hard and difficult." THE BLOTTER RECOMMENDS Who Knew What When?: Witnesses for the House Ethics Committee Report on Foley Discretion Advised Read the Instant Messages That Forced Foley to Resign Click Here to Check Out Who’s Blowing Hot, Cool and Smoke on the Brian Ross Homepage Calling the report a "whitewash," Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that the "House ethics committee has proven itself yet again to be entirely incapable of investigating wrongdoing by Members of Congress." The report states that as "a general matter," the committee "observed a disconcerting unwillingness to take responsibility for resolving issues regarding Rep. Foley’s conduct…Almost no one followed up adequately on the limited actions they did take." Other than one congressman and his staff, the committee says, no one in the House responsible for Foley’s conduct actually saw any of the e-mails. Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage on the Brian Ross Investigative Homepage. Even without proscribed punishments, the report issues some harsh assessments. Regarding then-Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), the report states, "Like too many others, neither the Majority Leader nor Rep. Reynolds showed any curiosity regarding why a young former page would have been made uncomfortable by e-mails from Rep. Foley. Neither the Majority Leader nor Rep. Reynolds asked the Speaker to take any action in response to the information each provided to him, and there is no evidence that the Speaker took any action." The report speculates as to why that may have been. "Some may have been concerned that raising the issue too aggressivelty might have risked exposing Rep. Foley’s homosexuality, which could have adversely affected him both personally and politically," the report states, adding that "political considerations played a role in decisions" by both Democrats and Republicans. Sloan said that at the very least members and their staffs violated Rule of the House ethics rules, which reads in part that "A member…officer or employee of the House shall conduct himself at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House." "All you have to do is anthing wrong and you violated Rule 23," Sloan said. And while the report illustrates "that a fair number of people knew about Foley’s behavior and didn’t do anything, the committee just said ‘everybody had bad judgment,’ but they found basically no wrongdoing." The report addresses that issue, saying that "the requirement that Members and staff act at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House does not mean that every error in judgment or failure to exercise appropriate oversight and sufficient diligence establishes a violation of House Rule 23." In a statement, outgoing Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said that he was "glad the Committee made clear that there was no violation of any House Rules by any Member or staff. As I said at the time — and the Committee has now confirmed — ‘The Investigative Subcommittee uncovered no evidence that the IMs were provided to, or were possessed by, any House Member, officer, or employee, the press, or any political organization prior to September 28 and 29, 2006" when ABC News broke the story of salacious instant messages. But the report doesn’t let the Members of the House and their staffs off the hook entirely. It states that the committee "was distrubed by the conduct of those who dealt with allegations regarding the conduct of former Representative Foley. When confronted with such allegations, the response of some individuals was limited to that necessary to shift notice and responsibility to those they believed more responsible for dealing with such matters." Every Member of Congress asked to testify did so though the report notes that outgoing Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), who is openly gay and has been suspected of improper behavior himself, limited the scope of his testimony. Kolbe has denied any inappropriate behavior. As to the fabled Watergate question, "What did they know and when did they know it?" the report states that a few people knew, and they’ve known for quite some time. As early as the mid-90s, House Clerk Jeff Trandahl "repeatedly confronted" Foley about "becoming too involved with the pages and failing to keep a professional distance." He didn’t consider Foley a threat to the pages, Trandahl testified, but rather thought Foley was taking a political risk because as a "closeted gay guy…he would be immediately presumed, in a political light," guilty unless he could prove himself innocent." Trandahl told the committee that he spoke of his concerns about Foley "pretty often" to Ted Van Der Meid, who in addition to serving as the Speaker’s counsel was also director of floor operations. Van Der Meid would tell Trandahl that "there is nothing wrong with people being mentors and caring about kids." Van Der Meid did not share Trandahl’s concerns with anyone else in the Speaker’s office, testifying that he was under the impression that Trandahl was handling it himself by discussing his concerns with then-Foley chief of staff Kirk Fordham. Trandahl and Fordham both testified that in late 2002/early 2003, Fordham spoke of his concerns about Foley and the pages to Palmer, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert’s chief of staff. Fordham says, "Palmer agreed that either he or the Speaker would talk to Foley about the matter." A couple days later, Fordham said, Palmer told him that "he had spoken to Rep. Foley," that Foley "understood the message," and that Palmer had "brought the Speaker into the loop." Trandahl testified that Palmer told him that he undertood the problem and was "on it." But Palmer told the committee that he had no recollection of what Fordham and Trandahl said. Nor did he think he ever warned Foley about his behavior with pages. "I believe it didn’t happen," Palmer said. In 2005, after a page sponsored by Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-Tenn.) received an e-mail from Foley that made him "sick, sick, sick," Alexander was notified about the situation. Alexander staffer Royal Alexander briefed Hastert staffer Mike Stokke in November 2005 on this incident; Stokke responded, "We know," or words to that effect, Alexander said, which he took to mean "that the Speaker’s office was aware of the issue and would take care of it." Stokke testified that he referred that matter to Trandahl and did not notify Hastert or Palmer. Trandahl and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) confronted Foley in his congressional office. Foley’s new chief of staff Liz Nicholson recalled Trandahl possibly telling Foley, "Mark, you’ve been warned by Scott before." Nicholson later asked Foley what Trandahl had meant, and Foley "said something about — that Scott Palmer had talked to him once before about…mentoring youths and things like that." Over Memorial Day weekend, Rep. Alexander testified that he mentioned the incident with his former page to then-Majority Leader John Boehner. "Okay, we’ll handle it," Boehner said, according to Alexander. Alexander also told Rep. Tom Reynolds then head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Boehner testified that he told Hastert about the issue almost immediately, and Hastert responded that the matter "has been taken care of." Reynolds testified that he too told Hastert about the incident. Hastert testified that he "does not recall" any such conversations with Boehner or Reynolds. Such differing recollections have some judging just who is telling the truth. CREW’s Sloan says, after reading the report, that "it sounds like Hastert and Palmer lied." Some other findings: Regarding the so-called "drunk dorm" incident, wherein Foley allegedly appeared intoxicated at the page dorm after curfew, the committee writes that a number of important players in the scandal — Trandahl, Fordham, Van Der Meid and chief page superviser Peggy Sampson — had heard about the alleged incident, but the investigative subcommittee of the Committee on Standards "heard no testimony from any person who actually witnessed this event," nor "any other direct evidence reflecting such an appearance by Rep. Foley at the page dorm." Though the report does mention an incident in June 2000 when Foley drove up to the dorm in his convertible BMW and picked up two or more pages and sped off, though the page superviser was not concerned and the pages returned not long afterwards. Rep. Kolbe testified that one of his pages, having served in the 1999-2000 academic year, told him about an incident during his freshman year of college when he was instant-messaging with Foley and the then-congressman "made reference to the size of his penis." The page forwarded the IM in an e-mail to Kolbe and asked the congressman to "take care of it." Kolbe asked a staffer to reach out to then-Foley chief of staff Fordham to make sure Foley knew the IM had made the page uncomfortable. In 2000, Fordham learned that Foley "used his own frequent flier miles to fly a former page to Washington to visit him." He also learned from Foley’s information technology manager that Foley had been e-mailing former pages. But at that time, Fordham "did not attempt to view the e-mails or investigate the matter." The committee did not obtain testimony from Foley. Foley’s attorney told the committee that he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-recrimination before the committee, and the committee decided that compelling compliance with the subpoenas it had issued him "would unnecessarily delay the issuance of this report." The report concludes with a number of recommendations to secure the integrity of the Congressional Page program, which unofficially began in 1827. "This is why we need an office of public integrity," CREW’s Sloan said, arguing in favor of an independent organization that would police Congress rather than having Congress investigate itself.

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