In uptight, colorless Washington, Congressman Mark Foley, 52, Republican of Florida, was a bon vivant. He loved parties and making jokes; he did a wicked Bill Clinton imitation; he loved to talk about sex. He had to be a little bit careful, however. A gay man, he might bring a boyfriend to private parties, friends say, but when he appeared on the official cocktail circuit, he went alone or with a woman. He also hid, or tried to hide, his interest in younger men--much younger men, including the teenagers who can be seen scurrying around Capitol Hill toting the mail and taking in, at least in theory, a firsthand civics lesson. The House pages, the 70-or-so high-schoolers who spend up to a year in Washington running errands for congressmen, live in a squat red-brick dormitory at 501 First Street Southeast, less than five blocks from the Capitol. The building once housed Roman Catholic nuns who worked at a nearby hospital. The teenage pages are chaperoned by six staffers and are warned to stay away from drugs and alcohol. Only steps away from the pages' dorm is a bar called Bullfeathers, where lobbyists take Hill staffers to down martinis. Two blocks away is the Cannon House Office Building, where Congressman Foley had his office.
On one night in 2002 or 2003, an allegedly inebriated Foley showed up at the pages' dorm after a 10 p.m. curfew and tried to gain entry, according to an account provided by two congressional sources, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. Foley was turned away by a guard. It is not known if the pages were ever aware that Foley lurked outside their door, but word of the incident reached the House Clerk, who notified Foley's chief of staff, Kirk Fordham.
This was not the first time that Fordham had learned of his boss's behaving, in that modern all-purpose euphemism, "inappropriately." Fordham decided that it was time to go to a higher authority, so he went to see Scott Palmer, chief of staff to the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert. That, at least, is what Fordham is prepared to tell investigators, according to a knowledgeable source who requested anonymity in discussing the probe. Palmer has already accused Fordham of dissembling, and Washington is settling in for one of its periodic melodramas of moralizing and prurience.
The secret world of Mark Foley--and the denial and bumbling of the House leaders who possibly did not want to know too much about that world--is beginning to emerge in bits and pieces of lurid detail. What actually happened--from the moment that Hill staffers first became aware of Congressman Foley's unusual interest in teenage congressional pages--is the source of intrigue, finger-pointing, shock, fear and loathing on Capitol Hill and of endless fascination around the country. No wonder: the political fortunes of the Republican Party hang in the balance.
Voters may not understand the legalistic ins-and-outs of campaign-finance scandals or know much about an influence peddler like Jack Abramoff beyond his name. But they can follow the details of a sex scandal, especially one that they can imagine harming their own children. It was not necessary to read Foley's leering (and worse) e-mails and instant messages to former congressional pages--in one, he asks "Do I make you a little horny?"--to be disgusted by an obvious abuse of power and trust. If enough voters express their feelings about the scandal at the polls in November (or by just staying home), the Republicans could lose control of Congress.
It is too early to know exactly why the Republicans failed to heed the warning signs about Foley's interest in the pages. Staffers raised concerns, the Speaker's office was notified and Rep. John Shimkus, head of the House Page Board, was dispatched to caution Foley and warn him away from the pages. But nobody bothered to investigate further--a step that might have uncovered the broader pattern of predatory behavior now evident.
There are plenty of theories about why the leadership did not take the matter more seriously. In the Washington power culture, incumbents are generally protected from the consequences of their own actions. That's especially true in a Congress where one party has ruled both houses for years; the concept of meaningful oversight has been essentially forgotten. And in a party ruled largely by conservatives, and built with the help of evangelicals, many of whom view homosexuality as unnatural and homosexual acts as sinful, leaders may also have had a special reluctance to scrutinize the sexual behavior of their colleagues or their staffs.
Inevitably, Washington was rife with nasty rumors of a "Velvet Mafia" of gay Hill staffers conspiring to protect each other. But Foley's homosexuality should not be the central issue in the scandal. His wrongdoing was to sexually prey on teenagers. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with sexual predation, and to suggest otherwise is to dredge up ugly stereotypes that are factually wrong (according to a 2000 Justice Department study, 97 percent of adults who sexually assault 12- to 17-year-old children are male--and 90 percent of their victims are female). Nonetheless, it is relevant that Foley is both homosexual and a Republican.
A number of top GOP staffers on Capitol Hill are gay and, generally speaking, most do not advertise their sexual orientation. Some staffers may believe that their place at the pinnacle of power could be compromised if their private lives were publicly known. Republican leaders on the Hill may not want to know too much about the sexual orientation of a fellow Republican congressman, like Foley, or even their staffers. They may wish to be in a position to deny any knowledge. If there were any efforts among gay staffers to protect Foley, they may have been motivated by personal considerations, or an effort to protect the GOP's rule on Capitol Hill. "The notion that there's a cabal and they're closing ranks and protecting one another because they're gay is reprehensible," says Brian Bennett, who came out after serving as chief of staff to former congressman Bob Dornan, a fierce right-winger. "People protect each other because they're friends."
Republicans have been tripping over each other for days trying to get their stories straight on who knew what and when. The various explanations have only served to obfuscate. In the end, the Republicans may not be able to escape the irony of the Foley scandal. In 2004, the GOP helped get President George W. Bush re-elected by turning out the base, especially the Christian right, to vote for state bans on gay marriage. In 2006, the GOP may lose control of Congress because it didn't try harder to investigate a gay congressman who was also a sexual predator.
The man at the center of the scandal is, or was, by all accounts an unusually upbeat, buoyant politician. Raised in modest circumstances, Foley, the son of a Marine veteran of Guadalcanal, has been enamored with politics from the time he dropped out of Palm Beach Junior College to start a small restaurant. A moderate Republican, he became a fixture in the glitzy Palm Beach social scene, hobnobbing with the wealthy at places like Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate. Foley was "just easy to like," says Sid Dinerstein, chair of the Palm Beach County Republican Party. "He loved his job. He loved waking up in the morning to find another event to go to."
Foley did not exactly hide his sexual orientation. He was often spotted with his longtime companion, a well-to-do Palm Beach dermatologist, though Dinerstein says the two were careful not to sit together at big charity functions. From time to time, however, Foley had to evade questions. Asked by a local radio host when he first ran for Congress in 1994 "Is it true you're gay?" Foley replied, "I have a girlfriend." He said the woman lived in Miami and spent time in Washington. In 2003, Foley backed out of a bid for the Senate, ostensibly to care for his sick father--but also, his friends suggested, because he did not want to withstand the inevitably increased scrutiny of his sexual orientation.
In Washington, Foley's homosexuality was an open secret. Gays active in Republican politics describe an informal "don't ask, don't tell" rule: gay staffers can be out of the closet, as long as they aren't too public about it. The party leadership apparently welcomed Foley: he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for GOP campaign coffers. Radical gay groups sometimes try to out closeted GOP congressmen, but Foley believed he had some protection. He could not be accused of hypocrisy because he voted against a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Still, Foley was subject to the jeers of at least one openly gay Democratic congressman. Last week Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts told the Advocate.com, a gay news site, "Once, at a congressional Christmas party at the White House, my ex-boyfriend Herb went up to Foley, who was with a female date, and said to him, 'Why don't you get a real date?' Foley didn't say anything."
Foley was sexually active in Washington, according to a gay Republican who declined to be identified discussing Foley's private life. Because he had a longtime partner, he told a friend, he preferred to have affairs with men who also had boyfriends. That way, he explained, they both had something to lose. Foley jokingly described this practice as "mutually assured destruction," said this friend.
Foley was looked after, at least to a degree, by Kirk Fordham, who ran Foley's first campaign and came to Washington as his chief of staff. Fordham, who is openly gay, has said he warned Foley not to flirt too openly. If Fordham is to be believed, Foley began showing undue interest in congressional pages as early as 2001. The Clerk of the House, Jeff Trandahl, advised Fordham to warn Foley about his conduct. Fordham, a skilled and ambitious political operative, left Foley's staff after he bowed out of a Senate run in 2003 and moved on, ultimately becoming chief of staff to Rep. Tom Reynolds, the head of the Republican congressional campaign committee.
Foley sent the e-mails that ultimately led to his downfall beginning in July 2005. Foley e-mailed a former page to ask, "How old are you now?" He asked the page what he wanted for his birthday. In a later e-mail, after Hurricane Katrina had hit Louisiana, Foley asked after his safety and to send a picture of himself. The e-mails were very familiar, but not overtly sexually suggestive, though in one e-mail Foley noted that he was on his way to the gym and wrote, "I am just finished riding my bike on a 25-mile journey."
The e-mails "freaked me out," the page told a staffer for his congressman, Louisiana Rep. Rodney Alexander. Foley's request for an "e-mail pic" was "sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick sick," the page told the staffer, scheduler Danielle Savoy. Representative Alexander's staff notified Speaker Hastert's staff, who in turn went to Representative Shimkus, the congressman who runs the Page Board, which acts as a kind of all-purpose den mother to the young pages.
A former Army Ranger, Shimkus is a tall, straight-talking West Pointer. He was shown at least parts of some of the e-mails, which he thought were disturbing, but ambiguous. In the fall of 2005, Shimkus marched over to Foley's office in the Cannon Building. Shimkus had been told by Clerk of the House Trandahl that the page's parents wanted the contact between Foley and their son to be stopped immediately. Fearing a media frenzy, they also wanted the matter to go no further.
Shimkus told Foley, "This is unacceptable. Stay away from the kid and stay away from the pages," according to a Shimkus staffer. Foley looked taken aback, the aide says. Foley said that he was merely acting as a "mentor." "Am I guilty of being too friendly?" Foley asked. "Yes," he answered his own question.
At the time, Shimkus was satisfied with Foley's response. He now refers to Foley as a "slimeball," and regrets he did not push further. He says he was fooled by Foley's performance and felt constrained by the parents' desire for discretion.
The e-mails from Foley to the page did not go away. They began showing up in newsrooms--at the St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald in Florida and some Washington news organizations. It is not clear how they got there. (A St. Petersburg Times editor told NEWSWEEK that the paper received the e-mails from a source in Alexander's office. The congressman's office did not return calls.) Journalists at several news organizations have identified the leaker as a "Republican whistle-blower." But it is also true that liberal and gay activist bloggers picked up the scent. While the newspapers did not believe that the e-mails revealed enough evidence of wrongdoing to publish them, the blogs had fewer compunctions. On Sept. 24, a site called stopsexpredators.blogspot.com published scanned images of Foley's e-mails to the pages, and within hours, the widely read liberal blog Daily Kos provided a link to the mystery blogger.
Over at ABC news, veteran investigative reporter Brian Ross had known about the Foley e-mails for some time, but he was distracted by more pressing stories. After the story was already out on the Internet, Ross published portions of the e-mails on his own blog, The Blotter.
The ABC blog seems to have opened the floodgates. Overnight, other former congressional pages began sending Ross much racier instant messages sent out by Foley, suggesting that the congressman had engaged in Internet sex and was angling for trysts. An ABC producer called Foley's office and read his staff some of the messages.
Foley was having lunch at his Capitol Hill town house with his old friend and former aide Kirk Fordham and other campaign advisers when they heard about the ABC inquiry. The congressman had already responded to the earlier, more benign e-mails with a statement brushing them off and accusing his Democratic opponent of smear tactics. On the phone, Foley told a friend, "It's worse. There are new e-mails and they're very graphic." Foley knew he was finished. Fordham walked over to GOP headquarters and shared the information with Reynolds and Hastert, according to a source who was present (and asked for anonymity given the delicacy of the situation). Fordham brought back a draft resignation letter; Foley signed it that evening. Fordham tried to win Foley some cover by offering ABC's Ross an exclusive on Foley's resignation if Ross agreed not to print the seamier messages. But Ross wasn't buying. Foley signed a short resignation letter and was in his car, a BMW, driving south for Florida by that evening.
Saying that he had an alcohol problem, Foley checked into rehab. His lawyer, David Roth, put out a statement that Foley had been abused by a clergyman as a teen--and said his client "unequivocally" denied having sex with a minor. These assertions were greeted with some skepticism, even by Foley's supporters. No one seemed to be able to recall seeing Foley drunk--though it is interesting that Foley was reportedly inebriated when he allegedly showed up outside the pages' dorm on that night three or four years ago. Foley did attend a parochial school, but so far no evidence has emerged that he was abused there. Though the FBI has opened up an investigation into Foley's relations with the pages, it is unlikely he will be prosecuted unless evidence emerges that he tried to lure minors into physical sex, not just e-mail sex.
The questions about Foley's past were accompanied by a furious round of accusations and denials by House Republican leaders. Hastert originally said he first heard about Foley's page problem from staff as the news broke. But House Republican leader John Boehner insisted that he had talked to Hastert himself last spring about Foley's contacts with the page. Republican operatives began predicting that Hastert would have to take the fall and resign. Last week, the Speaker, who has long been viewed as a figurehead installed by former House majority leader Tom DeLay, took "responsibility" for the Foley mess--without admitting that he had done anything wrong. In an attempt to quiet the speculation about his future, Hastert vowed that he would not step down. But the questions about what the GOP leadership knew about Foley--and what Hastert & Co. did or did not do--would not go away.
Behind the scenes, attention increasingly focused on Foley's after-hours visit to the pages' dorm several years ago. If Foley were really behaving that outrageously so long ago, why hadn't more been done to stop him? The answers may start with the testimony of Fordham, the former Foley chief of staff who is now cooperating with federal investigators.
Fordham had long worried about the behavior of his friend and boss. As early as in 2001, Fordham had received disturbing reports of Foley's "inappropriate" behavior toward the congressional pages. According to a knowledgeable source familiar with Fordham's account, who did not wish to be identified discussing such a sensitive matter, Fordham is prepared to tell investigators that he was warned "on two or three occasions" about Foley's "overly friendly" socializing with young male pages.
He was informed by Jeff Trandahl, then the Clerk of the House, who oversees the page program. On one occasion, sometime in 2002 or 2003, Trandahl told Fordham about Foley's nocturnal adventure to the pages' dorm. Trandahl told Fordham that Foley "appeared intoxicated," according to the source who provided Fordham's account to NEWSWEEK.
This incident prompted Fordham to go to Scott Palmer, Hastert's chief of staff, and tell him about Foley's behavior. Fordham called Palmer and told him that he wanted to speak with him privately, the source says. The two men met in a small office on Capitol Hill. (Palmer says the meeting never took place.)
Fordham did not tell Palmer about Foley's attempt to enter the pages' dormitory, but rather that he was generally concerned about his boss's excessive friendliness to the pages, according to the source. Palmer expressed surprise and concern, the source says, and wondered what this could mean to Foley's political future. Why would he endanger his career with such conduct?
Palmer assured Fordham that he would talk to Foley. A day or two later, Fordham called Palmer to ask what happened. Palmer told him that he "dealt with it" by talking to Foley and that he "informed the Speaker," according to the source familiar with Fordham's account. Months later Fordham had an awkward conversation with Foley in which his boss indicated that he had spoken to Palmer.
Last week, as House GOP leaders felt the waves of scandal breaking over their heads, a spokesman for Hastert insisted that Fordham had never warned the Speaker or his top aide, Palmer. "What Fordham said did not happen," said Palmer in a written statement. Trandhahl, who resigned for unknown reasons as Clerk of the House in November 2005, was not returning phone calls. Trandahl, who like Fordham is openly gay, could be an important witness as the House ethics committee begins an inquiry.
Foley's alleged late-night visit to the pages' dorm came up during a fraught conference call for all House Republican congressmen last week, and various Republican leaders were demanding a full investigation. One GOP member, Ginny Brown-Waite of Florida, said in a statement provided to NEWSWEEK that she had "learned" of the incident at the pages' dorm after she initiated her own investigation. One of her staff aides said that Brown-Waite had talked to a House official with direct knowledge of what had happened. Capitol Police were saying last week that they could find no records of Foley's alleged visit to the dorm.
At the White House, aides were straining to sound optimistic. "I think we've stabilized," said one senior Bush aide, operating under the usual White House requirement of anonymity. "Unless there's another circular firing squad or new information comes out." Others were gloomier. In Rep. Ray LaHood's Illinois district, the Foley scandal has been the lead story in the local paper every day for the past week. "We had this game plan of coming home and talking about our accomplishments on border security and the economy, and nobody wants to hear about it," says LaHood. "The only thing I hear from people is Foley ... It's all anybody wants to talk about, and I don't see that changing any time soon." According to the new NEWSWEEK Poll, fully 53 percent of Americans want the Democrats to win control of Capitol Hill next month; just 35 percent want the GOP to retain power. For the first time since 2001, the poll shows, more Americans trust the Democrats than the GOP on moral values.
It's not just the voters who care about "family values" who might be driven away, said Matt Dowd, Bush's longtime pollster. The brouhaha on the Hill threatens what Dowd calls "the gut values" relationship between voters and politicians they trust. "Values always determine elections," says Dowd. "Deep gut values, like 'Do I trust someone?'" Several leading party strategists worry that public trust in the House Republican leadership--never exactly ironclad, even among the truest Republicans--could be shredded by disarray in the leadership and doubts about whether they tried hard enough to deal with Foley before he could prey on teenagers.
The Democrats seemed happy to just get out of the way and let the Republicans devour themselves. "The story has plenty of energy on its own," said one Democratic strategist, who asked not to be identified as he crowed. "There's no need for us to draw attention to it." Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been strongly demanding an investigation, but she is seen as well positioned to take a public role, since her San Francisco district has a large gay population, and she runs little risk of being branded as insensitive. Republicans are furiously accusing the Democrats of timing the scandal to break just before the election. "This was a professional hit," says Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading GOP activist. No evidence of Democratic Party involvement has turned up, though whether the blogs got any information from party sources is open to question.
There is a real risk that the Foley scandal could spur a vicious campaign to out closeted gay Republicans. Although many gay conservatives make little effort to hide their sexual orientation, they have to put up with a certain amount of disdain, if not outright hostility, from certain quarters. Some GOP lawmakers frowned on Foley's fraternization with younger male staffers. A House GOP aide remembers standing on the House floor with his boss when Foley came over to say hello. Afterward, the aide remembers, his boss turned to him with an air of disdain. "Do you hang around with that guy?" the congressman asked. If the Foley scandal continues its downward spiral, the atmosphere of suspicion will only get worse.
CORRECTION: We erred in "A Secret Life" (Oct. 16) by reporting that a St. Petersburg Times editor said that the newspaper received inappropriate e-mails sent by Mark Foley from a source in Congressman Rodney Alexander's office. In fact, the newspaper confirmed the e-mails with Alexander's office, but received the messages from elsewhere. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.