Ethics panel approves subpoenas in new investigation of House page scandal; Hastert reasserts he's remaining in job

Thursday, October 5th 2006, 8:49 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The House ethics committee opened an expansive investigation into the unfolding page sex scandal Thursday, approving nearly four dozen subpoenas for witnesses and documents as House Speaker Dennis Hastert held his ground against pressure to resign.

``I'm deeply sorry this has happened and the bottom line is we're taking responsibility,'' Hastert, R-Ill., told at a news conference outside his district office.

``Ultimately, the buck stops here,'' the speaker said of the controversy enveloping the House, former Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida and the page program, a venerable institution almost as old as the Congress itself.

Hastert's handling of the issue has come under harsh criticism by some fellow Republicans and conservative activists at a time when the GOP is worried about holding onto its congressional majority power in the fast-approaching midterm elections.

Hastert abruptly changed the tactics he has followed since the scandal broke last week in the wake of the disclosures and Foley's resignation. As recently as Wednesday, the speaker blamed Democrats for the scandal and insisted he had done nothing wrong.

Foley's former chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press that he had talked three years ago with top aides in the speaker's office about Foley's behavior with pages.

``Kirk Fordham also said just about three or four days ago that he worked for this guy for 10 years and he never did anything wrong,'' Hastert said Thursday. ``So there's a little bit of difference in the testimony or what he said.''

Shortly after Hastert's press conference, Fordham emerged from an FBI interview Thursday beside his lawyer, Timothy Heaphy, who called the session productive but said Fordham could not comment on the case.

The committee's chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said a newly formed subcommittee's investigation ``will go wherever our evidence leads us.''

Asked if the embattled Hastert was among those subpoenaed, Hastings would not comment. Hastings said the subpoenas cover lawmakers and staff as well as appointed officers of the House.

Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said the speaker has not received a subpoena from the ethics committee. ``If the ethics committee asks him to, of course,'' Bonjean said.

The committee's senior Democrat, Rep. Howard Berman of California, said the investigation should take ``weeks, not months.''

Hastings and Berman will conduct the investigation along with Reps. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, and Judith Biggert, R-Ill., whose district is next to Hastert's.

``The facts will lead us to who, if there is someone, who perhaps did a cover-up,'' Biggert said.

Said Hastert: ``Any person who is found guilty of improper conduct involving sexual contact or communication with a page should immediately resign, be fired, or subjected to a vote of expulsion.''

Hastert was said by officials in advance of the speaker's news conference to have planned to ask former FBI Director Louis Freeh to also examine the page system and make recommendations. But that did not immediately materialize, and Hastert did not broach the name at his news conference.

Congressional aides said Hastert called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to suggest Freeh, but that Pelosi objected.

The swift-moving developments came as a furor mounted over the revelations about Foley and his resignation last Friday. Foley checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation facility in Florida.

Negative fallout for Republicans struggling to keep control of Congress was apparent in the latest AP-Ipsos poll, conducted this week after the Foley revelations surfaced.

About half of likely voters said recent disclosures of corruption and scandal in Congress will be very or extremely important in their vote next month, and Democrats enjoyed a nearly 2-to-1 advantage as the party better able to fight corruption.

Some leading Republicans have publicly blamed Hastert for failing to take action after he was warned about the messages.

In Atlanta, meanwhile, former page Tyson Vivyan, now 26, told AP he received sexually suggestive computer messages in 1997, years before the communications exposed last week, from an anonymous sender who turned out to be Foley.

Foley's attorney, David Roth, declined to comment.

Hastert announced that a tip line had been activated for people to call if they have information on Foley or any problems with the page program. The number is 866-348-0481.

The Justice Department earlier this week ordered House officials to preserve all records related to Foley's electronic correspondence with teenagers. The request for record preservation is often followed by search warrants and subpoenas, and signal that investigators are moving closer to a criminal investigation.

Foley, 52, stepped down after he was confronted with sexually explicit electronic messages he had sent teenage male pages. Through his lawyer, he has said he is gay but denied any sexual contact with minors.