WASHINGTON -- The House ethics committee yesterday questioned Speaker Dennis Hastert's top aide, a crucial witness in determining whether Hastert's office knew at least three years ago of Representative Mark Foley's come-ons to male pages.
The closed-door testimony by Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, could help determine who is telling the truth about when the speaker's office learned of Foley's conduct. Hastert has said it was in the fall of 2005.
The speaker has a lot riding on the outcome. He has fended off calls for his resignation with statements that his staff acted properly after the 2005 notification and quickly had a lawmaker and the House chief clerk confront the Florida Republican.
Hastert said he didn't learn about Foley until late September, when the scandal became public and Foley resigned.
The speaker's timeline could be shattered if the committee believes Foley's former chief of staff Kirk Fordham, who already has testified before the ethics panel. Fordham has said publicly that he told Palmer about Foley in 2002 or 2003, and subsequently learned that Palmer spoke with Foley on the subject.
"What Kirk Fordham said did not happen," Palmer said weeks ago in his lone public statement on the matter.
Hastert's version, issued as an internal report, said his staff learned in the fall of 2005 that Foley had sent overly friendly e-mails to a former Louisiana page. The report said the staff did not see the texts of the e-mails, which asked about the 16-year-old's birthday and requested a picture.
The report said the speaker's office contacted Jeff Trandahl, who was then chief House clerk. Trandahl went to confront Foley with Representative John Shimkus, Republican of Illinois and chairman of the board that oversees the page program, the report said, and they ordered Foley to immediately stop communicating with the teenager.
The report added that nobody in Hastert's office knew, until the messages became public, that Foley also had sent sexually explicit instant messages to other former pages.
The internal report did not mention any role played by Palmer, despite his status as Hastert's top assistant.
Hastert also has said he doesn't recall discussing Foley's conduct with Representative Tom Reynolds, Republican of New York, the House Republican campaign chairman; or majority leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, both of whom said they told Hastert about Foley earlier this year.
Campaigning for a Republican candidate in Tennessee, Hastert said he plans to testify before the committee this week. "What Mark Foley did was wrong. It was ethically wrong. It's a shame. It's actually disgusting," Hastert told reporters after a campaign rally.