Hastert Begins Damage Control

ByABC News
October 5, 2006, 7:40 PM

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."