The House ethics committee on Friday criticized Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and other senior Republican House members and officials for failing to protect young House pages from a Florida congressman's predatory conduct, but recommended no disciplinary action.
Left unproven in the nine-week probe of Rep. Mark A. Foley's e-mails and instant messages to the youths is exactly when Hastert, R-Ill., learned that Foley, a five-term Republican, was being overly friendly with male pages.
The committee did not specify which leaders were at fault. Instead, it suggested that all of them failed to rein in Foley, whom the report described as "a ticking time bomb."
Lawmakers and aides "failed to exercise appropriate diligence and oversight" regarding the interactions between Foley and pages, the report said.
The ethics panel said it found a pattern of conduct among many individuals "to remain willfully ignorant of the potential consequences" of Foley's conduct.
Hastert said he was pleased the committee found "there was no violation of any House rules by any member or staff."
Prominently mentioned in the report in addition to Hastert were House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio; Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence; former House Clerk Jeff Trandahl; and Mark Fordham, chief of staff to Foley and later to Reynolds.
As Congress rushed toward adjournment, the House press gallery was jammed with reporters anticipating the final report on a scandal that rocked the capital in October and contributed to the GOP's loss of Congress in the Nov. 7 elections.
But the ethics committee refused to make any part of the report public in advance and then declined to take questions. Instead, the committee's Democratic and Republican members praised each others' integrity and cited their hard work.
Reform groups responded with harsh criticism of the panel.
"It is unfathomable that the ethics committee has held no member or staff member individually accountable for the manner in which the Foley scandal was handled in the House," said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy21.
"The Foley scandal report is a bipartisan embarrassment and a sorry example of a Congress unwilling to hold its members and staff to account for misconduct," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch.
"Rep. Foley was essentially stalking underage pages for over 10 years, and the only concern from his colleagues and staff was on how this would impact Foley politically."
The bipartisan report appeared to support rumors that the scandal was timed by Democrats to erupt a month before election.
"The communications directors for both the House Democratic Caucus and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also had copies of [Foley's] e-mails in the fall of 2005," the report said.
At that time, the Democratic campaign committee's communications director was Bill Burton of Buffalo. Burton did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
Reynolds said he was "appalled" at the report's finding that spokesmen for two Democratic organizations saw Foley's e-mails in November 2005.
An employee of the House Democratic Caucus testified before the committee that he circulated some Foley e-mails a year ago to reporters at the Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times and the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call.
The ethics committee report specified that senior Republican House members saw only the general, suggestive e-mails that Foley sent to current or former pages. It was only after ABC News published Foley's salacious instant messages at the end of September that members learned of them.
Speculating on the reason for their reluctance to act, the committee said:
"Some may have been concerned that raising the issue too aggressively might have risked exposing Rep. Foley's homosexuality. . . . There is some evidence that political considerations played a role in decisions that were made by persons in both parties."
Reynolds, the House GOP campaign chairman, testified under oath before the committee that he reported the e-mails to Hastert last spring, reflecting what he said publicly during the congressional campaign.
Reynolds testified that the Foley matter was "just one briefing item out of many at that meeting and that Speaker Hastert did not comment on the matter."
Hastert, however, testified that he takes notes of important conversations with members and that he had no notes of any conversations like that.
The report said "the weight of the evidence supports the conclusion that Speaker Hastert was told, at least in passing, about the e-mails by . . . Boehner [and] Reynolds in spring 2006," the report said.
The document did not address Foley's decision months ago to run for another term. It did cite testimony from a senior House GOP aide that Reynolds was aware of Foley's problems while Foley was weighing another campaign.
Foley escaped punishment by the committee because he resigned Sept. 29 and is no longer under its jurisdiction. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., who may have discouraged a page from reporting on Foley, likewise eluded sanctions because he is retiring.
Florida authorities have opened a criminal investigation into whether Foley broke any laws related to his communications with the teens. Federal authorities are also investigating.