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A Secret Life

Mark Foley's explicit e-mails could bring down the GOP. His story, and the fallout.

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The Foley Factor

Oct. 8, 2006: NEWSWEEK's Eleanor Clift; Evan Thomas


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By Evan Thomas

Oct. 16, 2006 issue - 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.

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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.

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