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2006-10-03

Calls Increase for Hastert to Resign Over Foley Scandal

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Calls are increasing for House Speaker Dennis Hastert to resign over his handling of the Mark Foley scandal. We speak with a reporter at The Hill newspaper about the political fallout and the ABC News producer who first obtained the sexually explicit Internet messages Foley sent to underage male congressional pages. [includes rush transcript]

We begin by looking at the Foley Congressional scandal which has rocked Washington D.C five weeks before the mid-term elections and could cost the GOP control of the House.

Mark Foley, a Republican Congressman from a wealthy district in Florida resigned on Friday after ABC News revealed that he exchanged sexually explicit internet messages with teenage boys who used to work as pages on Capitol Hill. Yesterday, Foley checked himself into rehab stating he was being treated for "alcohol and emotional problems." Meanwhile, the FBI has begun examining whether Foley broke federal law and top Republicans are being charged with covering up his misdeeds. Speaker of the House Denis Hastert initially claimed he just learned about Foley’s actions, but Republican Congressman Thomas Reynolds later revealed that he had personally told Hastert months ago. Hastert allowed Mark Foley to remain the co-chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children up until Friday. This is Speaker Hastert yesterday.

  • Dennis Hastert (R–IL): "No one in the Republican leadership, nor Congressman Simkus saw those messages until last Friday when ABC news released them to the public. When they were released Congressman Foley resigned and I am glad he did. If he had not I would have demanded his expulsion from the House of Representatives."

ABC News Chief Investigative correspondent Brian Ross broke the story on Friday when he published transcripts of some of Foley’s online exchanges.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Speaker Hastert yesterday.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: No one in the Republican leadership nor Congressman Shimkus saw those messages until last Friday when ABC News released them to the public. When they were released, Congressman Foley resigned, and I’m glad he did. If he had not, I would have demanded his expulsion from the House of Representatives.

AMY GOODMAN: ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross broke the story Friday when he published transcripts of some of Foley’s online exchanges. This is an excerpt of his report on ABC’s Nightline last week.

BRIAN ROSS: His fellow Republicans had no idea the resignation was coming.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: None of us are very happy about it. Thank you.

BRIAN ROSS: In Congress, Foley was part of the Republican leadership and the chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. He crusaded for tough laws against those who use the internet for sexual exploitation of children.

MARK FOLEY: They’re sick people. They need mental health counseling. They certainly don’t need to be interacting with children.

AMY GOODMAN: Maddy Sauer joins us in the studio now, producer with the investigative unit, ABC News, has produced the stories on the Foley scandal with correspondent Brian Ross. Jonathan Kaplan joins us in Washington, D.C., a staff writer with The Hill newspaper, has also been following the Foley story. Maddy Sauer, let’s begin with you. First of all, welcome to Democracy Now!

MADDY SAUER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us exactly how this went down. Tell us how you developed this story.

MADDY SAUER: Well, it started on Thursday, when we ran a story on our website after we had obtained some emails that were written to a 16-year-old former congressional page from Congressman Foley that the page had forwarded on to a congressional staffer, saying that they made him uncomfortable. And these were certainly not the sexually explicit emails we later obtained, but they were strange things that you wouldn’t think that a congressman would be writing to a junior in high school: "What do you want for your birthday? What kind of stuff do you like to do? I like to work out. I like to keep in shape." And it was enough that the young boy had gotten a little freaked out by it and forwarded it along to a staffer. And those were the emails we had initially obtained, and we did a story on that on Thursday.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you get this information?

MADDY SAUER: They were passed to a colleague of mine from a source, not someone from a Democratic campaign, a source on the Hill. And when we talked to Foley’s office about those emails, they seemed to know all about them. "It’s no big deal. He is overly friendly. He’s overly engaging. If he’s guilty of anything, that’s all he’s guilty of. He’s very close with the pages. He has worked with the page program for some time."

So we published that story, and then almost immediately we began receiving emails from former pages, some going back as far as five years, who said this is the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more here. And Thursday night, I started reaching out to them by phone and email and talking to them Thursday night and Friday morning. And Friday morning, I received transcripts from two different former pages that were instant messages between former pages and the congressman, and they were very sexually explicit, and they were very similar. Both of them contained similar language, similar requests that the congressman had asked the young boys to do.

AMY GOODMAN: This was the one saying thing the teenagers should strip, and he wanted to grab his penis.

MADDY SAUER: Yes. And he had asked both of them to measure their penis. And it was enough that I went to Brian Ross with these, saying, you know, "What we do now?" And, of course, because they’re instant messaging transcripts, it was very hard to judge whether they were authentic or not, because anyone could hypothetically type one of these up.

So, there really was no other option but to go to the congressman’s office with this and let them know what we found. So I called the press person for Congressman Foley. I had let him know that I had obtained two transcripts from two different former pages, regarding internet messages with former pages. And they asked me for a copy of them, and I had to refuse, because that would have let them know who the pages involved in these communications were, and I wasn’t ready to do that. So, he asked me to read him the transcripts, which I did. And he —

AMY GOODMAN: This is the press person?

MADDY SAUER: This is the press person. And it was one of the strangest press conversations I’ve ever had with a press person for a congressman, because I’ve never ended that conversation saying, "So the question is: does the congressman engage in sexually explicit internet messages with teenagers that worked as congressional pages?" And when he had to tell me he’d call me back on that one, I knew we had a problem here. So, it was, I’d say, an hour maybe that we got a call back from the congressman’s office saying he was going to resign.

AMY GOODMAN: The congressman himself or his office?

MADDY SAUER: No, no. His office. We never spoke directly with the congressman.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has happened since?

MADDY SAUER: And so, since then we’ve begun posting these messages, and we’ve received even more communication from former pages. I have talked to, now, I would say, almost ten former pages from different years, a few of whom have had direct email interactions with the congressman that were like this, a couple of whom are just friends of people that had these experiences. And the stories are remarkably similar. It always starts as a friendly "Hi, how are you doing?"

And, of course, these pages have left the Hill at this point. They’re not still working on the Hill, so they want to keep in touch with the congressman contact, because they’re all aspiring politicians or at least want to work in that world. And they’re trying to chat politics with him, and meanwhile he’s changing the subject to, you know, "Go measure yourself and what are you wearing?" And, you know, one of the questions that keeps coming up is, why didn’t anyone report this? But this is after they’ve left the Hill. There’s no dorm proctor to go to. There’s no page person to go to, a supervisor. So, short of calling the police, there wasn’t really a lot of options for these young men. And, of course, you know, no one wants to start their political career by being in the center of a sex scandal.

AMY GOODMAN: There is a committee, however, that does oversee — because these are kids — oversee, and their parents send them to Washington, D.C., and they live in a dorm and get classes at that dorm and also do the page thing. This committee, who sits on this committee?

MADDY SAUER: Well, there are various employees of the House clerk’s office, and some of them have gone on to be senior staffers for congressmen. And one of these, they have each — the Democratic pages and the Republican pages each have separate supervisors that work in the clerk’s office. And one of the former pages we spoke to, who was a Republican page, said his supervisor, when they all came in — and this was the fall of 2001 — said somewhat jokingly, but "Watch out for Congressman Foley. Don’t get too involved with him. You know, he’s really friendly, but he’s a little strange." So it was clear even then that they knew something was up. Maybe they didn’t know the exact details of it, but enough people knew that it was well known among every page that I spoke with. Every single page I’ve spoken with has said everyone knew this was going on.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Maddy Sauer, who broke this story with Brian Ross at ABC News of the sexually explicit IMs, instant messaging, that was going on, that the congressman was sending to underage pages. Jonathan Kaplan is also with us, staff writer at The Hill newspaper in Washington D.C. This is exploding on the Hill right now, Jonathan. Can you talk about Hastert’s response, the Washington Times calling for his resignation?

JONATHAN KAPLAN: Well, I think the House leadership is really scrambling to figure out what they knew, when they knew it and what they did about it. And, you know, they can’t all seem to get on the same page. Tom Reynolds — Congressman Alexander from Louisiana went to — he said that he told Congressman Tom Reynolds, who’s the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which means that he’s in charge of raising the money and putting together the strategy of getting the House Republican Conference reelected this November. Reynolds said he went to Hastert. Hastert said he couldn’t remember, but he wasn’t going to dispute Reynolds’s assertion. And so, now we’re at this standstill about how to go forward and what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Congressman Foley was co-chair of the Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. What did he do there?

JONATHAN KAPLAN: Well, you know, there are a lot of caucuses. I guess the one thing that sort of — I wouldn’t say it bothers me, but it’s a bit misleading that he was a member of the House Republican leadership. He was an assistant whip or a deputy whip, which technically means he was in the leadership, but he wasn’t part of the leadership structure that meets every Tuesday and Wednesday. You know, I was looking at his voting record last night. The one thing that struck me is that he voted against the gay marriage amendment. But there are lots of caucuses in the House. You know, I think there’s a caucus for members from steel-producing states. There’s probably a sportsmen’s caucus. And it’s basically — they share information. It’s a policy group, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happens now exactly? Right to the top, Dennis Hastert, he’s in trouble. He said he didn’t talk about this, that Reynolds, a Republican from New York, said he did talk to him about it. He said he talked to him about months ago. Then Hastert did not quite deny this. And then, others are saying they’ve talked about it. And we hear Maddy Sauer talking about the kids who come in as pages being told as far back as 2001, "Watch out for Congressman Foley."

JONATHAN KAPLAN: Well, there’s no question there’s an institutional crisis. And, I mean, the problem is, it’s a month before the elections. And I don’t think — I mean, this could not have happened at a worse time for them. Things weren’t going well to start with. It looked like when they come back from the August recess, that there was a little bit of change in momentum. They were going to focus on talking about national security, the war on terrorism. There was the September 11th anniversary. And the Congress did some big things in the past two weeks, but — you know, voting to build a fence along the Mexican border, the U.S.-Mexican border; the detainee bill; and, you know, some other run-of-the-mill spending stuff that Congress takes care of at the end of every session. But it’s all overshadowed by this, the Foley scandal. And, you know, what’s going to happen, it’s very unclear, because everything is very fluid, and it’s moving way too quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what this means for the Florida race and what this could mean for the balance of the House?

JONATHAN KAPLAN: Well, specifically for Mark Foley’s congressional district, which is in southern Florida, and basically it looks like in Oklahoma with two stems, one at the top and one at the bottom, and it goes all — it cuts almost all the way across the state. It’s a solid Republican district. He’s never — his closest election was in 1994, when he first got here. He won. He won with 58% of the vote. He has never gotten that low of — you know, he’s won with over 60% ever since.

But now, the way it is under Florida law, the county Republican chairmen got together over the weekend. They selected a state — a conservative state representative, sort of an insurance mogul who has never really run for public office — well, he’s never run for federal office before. And the thing of it is, though, his name won’t be on the ballot, so people who go to vote are going to have to vote for Mark Foley. And yesterday on FOX News, John Boehner, the Majority Leader of the House, basically said that seat’s lost, it’s gone, that, you know, there’s no way that people are going to go into the voting booth, hold their nose, vote for Mark Foley, and make this distinction that it’s not really for Foley, it’s for this new guy.

And as for the balance of the House, let’s just say it doesn’t make things any easier for them. They already had, you know, a bad environment. People don’t think the country is on the right track. The President has low to mediocre approval ratings. Congress itself has horrendous approval ratings, and I can’t believe that this helps that at all. I think when the New York Times did their poll last month, the New York Times-CBS poll, Congress had a 25% approval rating, a 61% disapproval rating. And we haven’t seen numbers like that since the early ’90s when there was a lot of volatility in American politics.

AMY GOODMAN: In reading one of the reports about the man who will stand in for him, the State Senator Negron, he stood beside a tenth grade son, eighth grade daughter, became choked up, put his hands over his face as he started to cry. He said, "I’ve had pages work in my office for years. I’ve seen pages…" his voice trailing off, putting his hand over his face, struggled to start talking again. "It was very disturbing, because I work with these young people." The Democratic nominee, Tim Mahoney, a former Republican and financial adviser, who says his campaign won’t change, but you do, if you are in that district, have to vote for Congressman Foley, as you said, in order to vote for a Republican, because his name can’t be taken off the ballot. And what this means overall for the races, and will it take anyone else down specifically?

JONATHAN KAPLAN: You know, that’s an excellent question, because, you know, we haven’t seen in a very long time whether something that happens in one congressional district affects what goes on in other congressional districts. And I think, again — but it plays into the overall zeitgeist, and it continues this drip, drip, drip. You know, you have Duke Cunningham, Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, now Mark Foley. You’ve had, you know, four big resignations this year, all due to scandal. And at least in the case of Cunningham and Ney, not just ethical impropriety, but criminal impropriety.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Maddy Sauer, the FBI is getting involved with this now?

MADDY SAUER: Oh, yes. They will likely start interviewing pages as early as today.

AMY GOODMAN: Why the FBI?

MADDY SAUER: Well, this is one of the things that has disturbed me the most, because at least when these suggestive emails were passed to Rodney Alexander’s office, who passed them to Tom Reynolds, you know, the excuse has been, "Well, we didn’t investigate, because there was nothing sexual there. It was just a suggestion that, 'what do you want for your birthday?'" But the whole point is, if there were these rumors and if people sort of had a hunch that this was happening, this would have been the perfect opportunity to actually go and investigate. You have emails. You have a child who’s complaining. Go investigate.

Now, the FBI is involved. They didn’t investigate when they initially got the emails, but they may not have known about these rumors and hunches that people on the Hill had. And because he is soliciting a minor, in some of these instances, online, where he is saying, "Let’s have dinner. Where do you want to meet? I’ll pick you up at the airport," that is punishable as soliciting a minor over the internet, because the kid was under 18 at that time, and it’s a federal crime, and it is one of the laws that Congressman Foley actually helped to enact.

AMY GOODMAN: If these pages were being warned as early as 2001 by the overall people in the page committee, "Stay away from Foley," how could other congress members, Democrat and Republican, not know?

MADDY SAUER: That’s to be seen. I mean, that’s the question now — who knew, and what did they know? — because it seems as if at the very least there were staffers at a high level that knew about this, and it is hard to imagine that there are no congress people out there that did know about this, and that’s what we’re, of course, looking at next.

AMY GOODMAN: Newt Gingrich yesterday on FOX, the former Speaker of the House, defending how the matter was handled, saying Republicans would have been accused of gay-bashing if they had overly aggressively reacted to Foley’s inappropriate actions?

MADDY SAUER: Well, I mean, the issue is, this is a minor. I think if these were young female pages, this still would have been absolutely unacceptable with a congressman emailing somebody in high school. This is not an issue about whether the congressman is gay or straight. This is an issue about minors and congressional pages that have gone to the Hill to learn about how our country works and, you know, are aspiring to work there themselves one day. It’s just — the story is not about whether the congressman is gay or straight.

AMY GOODMAN: The next story coming out from ABC?

MADDY SAUER: Well, that’s to be determined. We, of course, are hoping to speak to more of these young pages, and, of course, we’re hoping to find out who knew exactly what and when, and that’s the chain we’re trying to follow right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Maddy Sauer, thanks so much for joining us. I also want to thank Jonathan Kaplan, staff writer at The Hill in Washington, D.C.

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