The Wrong Message

Mark Foley, a six-term Republican congressman from Florida, championed the protection of children from sexual predators. Chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, he often spoke out about the need to catch pedophiles. In July, he attended a signing ceremony at the White House for the Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. "We track library books better than we do sexual predators," he had argued in support of the bill.

It took some time, but last week Foley himself was tracked down. Confronted by ABC News with sexually explicit messages he had exchanged with 16- and 17-year-old congressional pages, Foley abruptly resigned his seat. (He did not protest his innocence; whether he committed a crime is unclear.) Politicians and preachers crusading against sin while sinning themselves is an old morality play. But the politics of Foley's downfall are messy and intriguing, coming just weeks before hotly contested congressional elections. The Democrats accused the Republicans of trying to cover up Foley's indiscretions until after Election Day, while the Republicans accused the Democrats of leaking the story just in time to cost the GOP a crucial seat.

An energetic, capable politician, Foley appeared to be well matched to his prosperous Palm Beach district. His sexuality did not seem to be an issue with voters. In Washington he made little effort to hide his sexual orientation, and neither his colleagues nor his staff seemed to worry that he might be a predator. Gregarious and fun-loving, he was known for hosting raucous parties and making off-color jokes. "All of his colleagues knew" that Foley was gay, said a former aide, who asked for anonymity discussing Foley's personal life. "It was the worst-kept secret in Washington."

Radical gay groups sometimes "out" closeted right-wingers, but Foley was insulated against charges of hypocrisy because he voted against a congressional ban on gay marriage. (Last week Democrats were careful to say that the issue was not his sexuality but potentially criminal behavior toward minors.) Foley's sexuality may have inhibited his political ambitions, however. In 2003, he briefly ran for the Senate before dropping out, against the urgings of some party leaders who wanted him to stay in the race. He held a press conference to denounce rumors that he was gay, without confirming or denying them.

Foley's sexual leanings were also well known, or at least suspected, by a particularly vulnerable group on Capitol Hill. Every year Congress hires about 100 pages, who can be seen in their distinctive blue uniforms scurrying through the halls, running errands for lawmakers. The pages have been embroiled in earlier sex scandals. In 1983, a pair of congressmen admitted to sexual relations with underage pages (one with a girl, one with a boy). After that, the pages were housed in a dormitory and fairly closely chaperoned. A former female page, who asked not to be identified to protect her privacy, told NEWSWEEK that she and other pages had regularly seen Foley stop and talk to pages on the House floor and in the cloakroom, lingering with them and asking them to describe their experiences in Congress. "We just gradually figured out he was flirting with the guys," said the page. "It made a lot of the guys uneasy. He was kind of creepy."

In late 2005, one of the pages, a young man from Louisiana, went to an aide to his congressman, Rodney Alexander. The page had received some e-mails from Foley that, the boy said, "freaked me out." Alexander went to Republican Party leaders, and Foley was summoned to see GOP Congressman John Shimkus, the chairman of the House Page Board. The e-mails between Foley and the page were subject to interpretation--Foley had asked for a photograph of the boy, talked about going to the gym and asked if he was OK after Hurricane Katrina. Foley insisted that he was acting only as the boy's "mentor." Shimkus warned Foley to be "especially mindful of his conduct" with the pages. The boy's parents did not want to pursue the matter.

That might have been the end of it, but rumors and copies of the messages began to rattle around newsrooms in Florida and Washington, possibly fed by Foley's political opponents. Last Thursday night ABC News broke the story. That seemed to open the Internet floodgates. The next night ABC posted a follow-up on its Web site, showing instant messages between Foley and congressional pages that were far more sexually explicit. Many more, and much seamier, message exchanges began to pour in to ABC. Some were mildly crude. "Do I make you a little horny?" Foley is said to have asked one page. Others show Foley, under the signer Maf54, engaged in graphic Internet sex with minors, ABC reported. During one session a page instant-messages Maf54, "brb [be right back] ... my mom is yelling." ABC confronted Foley with a batch of these messages, and within hours he had penned a one-sentence resignation note. Foley issued a statement saying that he was "deeply sorry" for letting down his family and the voters, but made no reference to any e-mails. It is not known if he is under any kind of criminal investigation.

The politics heated up right away. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi took the floor to demand an investigation. Her Democratic colleagues instantly began agitating to know what the Republican leadership had known about Foley and when it had known it. The GOP leadership did not help its cause by putting out garbled or conflicting accounts, though there was no proof of any kind of deliberate cover-up. Late Saturday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader John Boehner and Majority Whip Roy Blunt issued a statement calling for a criminal investigation. But some Republicans were also curious about the timing of the revelations. Foley's district is strongly Republican, but he had faced a serious challenger, Tim Mahoney. The GOP can pick a new candidate, but it may be too late to get Foley's name off the ballot, which could cost the Republicans a seat. The struggle for control of the House may be so close, with a 15-seat swing hanging in the balance, that a single seat can make a real difference.

While congressmen caught in a sex scandal is nothing new, the way the story broke shows the power of Web technology to influence politics. Few people may have even been aware that instant messages can be saved and copied, but they have turned out to be a powerful weapon. Before the Internet, a story like Foley's might have kicked around for months, with conflicting accounts, and possibly never surfaced. Once the existence of the e-mails became known, Foley was swept away within hours.