Hastert Begins Damage Control


Oct. 5, 2006 — -- House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., took responsibility for the congressional page scandal Thursday, and made an effort at damage control that was at once defiant -- he refused to step down as speaker -- and conciliatory.

"I'm deeply sorry that this has happened," the speaker said outside his office in Batavia, Ill. "The bottom line is that we're taking responsibility because ultimately -- as someone has said in Washington before -- the buck stops here."

Hastert acknowledged that "in retrospect" the page board could have handled the scandal better.

Not all Hastert's efforts at damage control took place in front of the cameras. Hastert has been fighting to save his job amid numerous reports that Hastert, his staff and the GOP leadership ignored previous warnings about former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., and his inappropriate behavior with congressional pages, who were high school age. Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, has claimed that he told Hastert earlier this year about inappropriate e-mails Foley sent to one page.

Conservative activist Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, told ABC News that in a private phone conversation Hastert "assured me that Congressman Boehner had never, ever talked to him about this."

"He didn't call him a 'liar,' " Weyrich said, "but he said, 'Paul, I assure you that phone call or visit from the majority leader never took place."

As to the claim by Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., that he also had told Hastert earlier this year about the e-mails, Weyrich said Hastert said in private, as he has in public, that he doesn't remember that, but he did not challenge Reynolds' veracity.

Reynolds' former chief of staff Kirk Fordham, who resigned earlier in the week, told the FBI that as Foley's chief of staff in 2003, he told Hastert aide Scott Palmer that Foley had a page issue.

Palmer denied that claim, but Hastert said today that he could not say whether anyone on his staff had heard the earlier warnings about Foley's inappropriate behavior. "I don't know who knew what when," Hastert added. "If it's members of my staff and they didn't do the job, we will act appropriately."

The House Ethics Committee also met Thursday, saying its bipartisan membership would get to the bottom of how the entire Republican leadership handled this situation. Members of the committee said they would issue more than 48 subpoenas for documents and testimony and hoped to find answers within a matter of weeks.

"We pledge to you that our investigation will go wherever the evidence leads us," said committee chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who added that he personally "think[s] the speaker has done an excellent job," a comment that had Democrats questioning his ability to lead an impartial investigation.

Whether Hastert's speech will be enough remains unclear. He clearly picked up one vote of confidence: President Bush called him for the first time since the scandal broke, thanking him for having "showed the American people that they" -- the House leadership -- "take responsibility and hold themselves accountable," a White House official said.

A less favorable review could be seen in the announcement that Shelley Sekula Gibbs, the Republican running to succeed Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, had canceled a Hastert fundraiser slated for some time at the end of October. With the investigation surrounding Foley's e-mails and instant messages, Gibbs's campaign manager, Lisa Dimond, said, "Dr. Gibbs decided she wanted to wait until the outcome of the investigation."

Karen Travers and David Chalian contributed to this report.

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