Paging Mark Foley

Washington's October surprise

As October surprises go, the Mark Foley IM imbroglio is the Washington scandal that keeps on giving.

Congressman Mark Foley (R-Fla.) resigned abruptly on Sept. 29 after revelations of sexually suggestive Internet exchanges with a teenage male who was a former congressional page.

”I am deeply sorry and I apologize for letting down my family and the people of Florida I have had the privilege to represent,” Foley said in a statement released by his office. Two days later he reportedly was blaming alcohol for the lapses in judgment and had checked himself into a rehab facility. On Oct. 3, Foley’s attorney claimed that Foley had been molested as a teenager by a clergyman.

The exchanges from his personal online account, at least what have been revealed as of Metro Weekly deadline, are attempts by Foley to elicit masturbatory fantasies from a teenaged page, reported to be 17 years old at the time of the messages. Foley is 52. The most detailed exchange occurred in 2003, another in 2004.

Foley’s instant messages, such as ”Do I make you a little horny?” while considered over-the-line and creepy by most, do not suggest that physical contact ever occurred between Foley and the page, who were in different states at the time of the exchanges.

ABC News, which broke the story, says it has additional exchanges that are more graphic. It did not state why its source chose to save the IMs, or how the messages came into ABC’s possession.

Several former pages, of both sexes, told the New York Times that Foley was one of the few members of Congress who even bothered to speak with them. Some have continued periodic correspondence with him. They saw Foley’s attention as mentoring, but acknowledged hearing rumors that he was gay, though none claimed experiencing inappropriate conduct.

The Miami Herald quoted Andrew Tobias, the openly gay treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, as knowing Foley personally. ”The last time I saw Mark, he was 19 years into a relationship. That was sad that it had to be hidden.”

The openly closeted Foley has been outed several times by gay activists. Recurrent rumors of his sexual orientation arose during his 2003 bid for the Republican Senate nomination in Florida. At a press conference he denounced those rumors as ”revolting and unforgivable” and declined to discuss his sexual orientation. He later withdrew from the campaign, citing the failing health of his father.

Mel Dahl, a Florida gay activist and writer, recalls being dragged by his partner to one of Foley’s Senate campaign appearances in a conservative part of the state. ”The first thing I noticed was the adorable, barely legal young men who made up his entourage.”

”When he got up to speak I was mortified,” says Dahl. ”It was all this bullshit about putting God and the Bible back in the schools and how Judge Roy Moore was right to stand up to the federal courts on the Ten Commandments issue. I don’t think he believed a word of it himself, but he knew it would play well to that audience.”

Foley was first elected to Congress in 1994, compiling a voting record that has straddled a moderate-conservative line. The Family Research Council rated him at 69 percent for the first half of the 109th Congress, the lowest among Florida Republicans. The Human Rights Campaign rated him 88 percent in their last rating, one of their highest scores from either party among the Florida delegation.

HRC president Joe Solmonese addressed the scandal in a statement released Oct. 3: ”Gay or straight, Democrat or Republican, it is completely inexcusable for an adult to have this kind of communication with a minor. Congressman Foley brought shame on himself and this Congress by his horrible behavior and complete lack of judgment. We strongly condemn his behavior.”

Foley played a leadership role on AIDS issues, supported the Employment Not-Discrimination Act, opposed anti-gay provisions of faith-based legislation, and voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment.

He also co-chaired the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus and helped to write much of the legislation strengthening prosecution of pedophiles and child pornographers.

Many online postings have charged Foley with being a pedophile and abusing children. However, as yet, no evidence has been presented of sexual contact, only online exchanges. Additionally, while pedophilia is defined as a sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children, Foley is accused of inappropriate sexual communication with teens aged 16 and older.

The legal age of sexual consent in the District of Columbia is 16.

This being Washington, the finger pointing began immediately, hyped up by the smell of blood during the closing month of a bitterly partisan election fight for control of Congress.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) acknowledged that they had known about at least some of the exchanges as early as last fall. But they had been assured by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), chair of the page program, that it had been investigated and Foley had been told to have no more contact with the youth.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for an investigation by the House Ethics Committee and the House voted to do so, 409 to 0. In a news release, she characterized Foley’s exchanges as ”internet stalking of an underage former House page.” Not long after, Pelosi revised her statement to eliminate the reference to ”stalking,” but maintained the high level of dudgeon.

”Why did [Republican Congressman] Tom Reynolds cover up congressman’s sex crimes?” charged a release by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), campaigning for the Democrat running for Foley’s old seat, said of the exchanges, ”I think every parent in America was disgusted and disturbed by it.”

The Democratic National Committee put out a press release asking, ”What did Coach H [Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach] and his buddies know and when did they know it?”

Hastert wrote a letter asking the FBI to investigate not only whether Foley broke any federal laws, but also ”the extent [to which] there are persons who knew or had possession of these messages [some from a long as three years ago] but did not report them to the appropriate authorities.”

On Oct. 1, the FBI announced it was initiating that investigation.

Some conservatives are upset with Hastert’s handling of the Foley situation as well. The Washington Times editorial page called for the speaker’s resignation.

A week ago Foley was thought to be a sure bet to keep that congressional seat Republican, but with the Republican party unable to replace Foley’s name on the ballot with a new candidate, many analysts consider it likely that the Democrats will pick up the seat.

The Democrats need just 15 more seats to gain control of the House, so they are hoping to spin the issue from the lapses of one man into those of an entire party. However, some in the gay community have begun to express concern that Democrats may be too willing to fan the flames of homophobia in their quest to pin Foley’s transgressions on the majority party.

But perhaps the greatest irony will come on Election Day, if the ongoing revelations — and all signs point to more on the way — drive down turnout of the social conservative Republican base because they believe the House leadership was protecting a homosexual.

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