White House, Dems expect criminal probe of e-mail scandal

WASHINGTON -- The White House and Democratic leaders in Congress called Sunday for a criminal probe into former Rep. Mark Foley's electronic messages to teenage boys -- a lurid scandal that has put House Republicans in political peril.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett called the allegations against Foley shocking. He said President Bush hadn't learned of Foley's inappropriate e-mails to a 16-year-old boy and instant messages to other boys before the news broke last week.

Bartlett said House leaders were pursuing the matter aggressively enough that an independent outside investigation was not warranted. "There is going to be, I'm sure, a criminal investigation into the particulars of this case," he said. "We need to make sure that the page system is one in which children come up here and can work and make sure that they are protected."

Foley, R-Fla., quit Congress on Friday after the disclosure of the e-mails he sent to a former congressional page and sexually suggestive instant messages he sent to other high school pages.

Federal crime

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called the Foley case "repugnant, but equally as bad is the possibility that Republican leaders in the House of Representatives knew there was a problem and ignored it to preserve a congressional seat this election year."

Reid said the case should be handled outside Congress.

"Under laws that Congressman Foley helped write, soliciting sex from a minor online is a federal crime," Reid said. "The alleged crimes here are far outside the scope of any congressional committee, and the attorney general should open a full-scale investigation immediately."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., maintained at first that he had learned only last week about the e-mails. But Rep. Thomas Reynolds, head of the House Republican election effort, said Saturday he had told Hastert months ago about concerns Foley sent inappropriate messages to a teenage boy. Reynolds, R-N.Y., is under attack from Democrats who say he did too little to protect the boy.

Hastert acknowledged over the weekend that his aides had, in fact, referred the matter to the House clerk and to the congressman who was chairman of the board that oversees the page program. Hastert's office said, however, it had not known the e-mails were anything more than "over-friendly."

Congressional pages

Majority Republicans engineered a House vote Friday that refers the Foley matter to the House ethics committee, but lets that panel decide whether there should even be an investigation.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, pressed the committee on Sunday to begin investigating and make a preliminary report within 10 days. She demanded to know who knew of the messages, whether Foley had other contacts with pages and when the Republican leadership was notified of Foley's conduct.

"Republican leaders have admitted to knowing about Mr. Foley's outrageous behavior for six months to a year, and they chose to cover it up rather than to protect these children," she wrote.

Congressional pages, a staple of Washington politics since the 1820s, are high school students who serve as temporary gofers in the House and Senate. The program nearly ended in the early 1980s due to alleged sexual misconduct and drug use.

Republican leaders say it is their duty to ensure House pages' safety, and are now creating a toll-free hot line for pages and their families to call to confidentially report any incidents. They also will consider adopting new rules on communications between lawmakers and pages.

House Democrats said that wasn't enough.

"This should be investigated objectively. I think the Democratic leadership should have been told 10 months ago," said Rep. Jane Harman of California, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "I gather that basically nothing was done except that Foley was warned."

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said it was outrageous the House GOP leadership had not acted sooner. "It really makes me nervous that they might have tried to cover this up," he said.

Murtha said the House ethics committee should conclude its work on the Foley case before the November elections, so that voters can "hold people accountable." Doing so, he said, might help restore public confidence, since already "the reputation of Congress under the Republican leadership is lower than used car salesmen."

Foley, who is 52 and single, was co-chairman of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus. In a statement Friday, he said, "I am deeply sorry and I apologize for letting down my family and the people of Florida I have had the privilege to represent."

Harman was on "Fox News Sunday," Murtha appeared on ABC's "This Week" and Bartlett spoke on ABC's "This Week, CNN's "Late Edition" and CBS' "Face the Nation."