Washington House Speaker Dennis Hastert's political support showed signs of cracking Wednesday as Republicans fled an election-year scandal spawned by steamy computer messages from former Rep. Mark Foley to teenage male pages.
At the same time, Foley's former chief of staff said in an Associated Press interview that he first warned Hastert's aides more than three years ago that Foley's behavior toward pages was troublesome. That was long before GOP leaders acknowledged learning of the problem.
Kirk Fordham, who was Foley's top aide until January 2004, said he had "more than one conversation with senior staff at the highest level of the House of Representatives asking them to intervene" several years ago.
Fordham resigned Wednesday as staff chief for another lawmaker caught up in the scandal, New York Rep. Thomas Reynolds, the House GOP campaign chief who says he alerted Hastert to concerns about Foley last spring.
The aide's claim drew a swift, unequivocal denial from Hastert's chief of staff. "What Kirk Fordham said did not happen," Scott Palmer said through a spokesman.
Republican officials said at least a few disgruntled members of the GOP rank and file had discussed whether to call on the speaker to step aside. It was not known how far the effort had gone. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
Ron Bonjean, Hastert's spokesman, said the entire matter had been referred to the House ethics committee. "We fully expect that the bipartisan panel will do what it needs to do to investigate this matter and protect the integrity of the House," he added.
GOP on defensive
Foley, 52, a Florida Republican, resigned Friday after he was confronted with sexually explicit electronic messages he had sent teenage male pages. He has since entered an alcohol rehabilitation facility at an undisclosed location. Through his lawyer, he has said he is gay but denied any sexual contact with minors.
His abrupt departure left behind an Internet-age sex scandal that has shaken Republican confidence - and poll numbers - little more than a month before elections at which their control of the House will be tested.
It also plunged Hastert and others into an intensive effort to grapple with conflicting claims about what senior lawmakers knew, when they learned it and what they did about it.
Fordham said that more than three years ago, he repeatedly asked GOP staffers to intervene with Foley, his boss at the time. He declined to identify them, but officials said Palmer, Hastert's chief of staff, was one of them. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Fordham also disputed allegations that he covered up any misdeeds by Foley. "At no point ever did I ask anyone to block any inquiries," said Fordham, who was Foley's longtime chief of staff until leaving in January 2004.
He said he intends to fully disclose to the FBI and the House ethics committee "any and all meetings and phone calls" about Foley that he had with senior aides in the House leadership.
State and federal investigators swung into action.
The Justice Department ordered House officials to "preserve all records" related to Foley's electronic correspondence with teenagers, and one law enforcement official said FBI agents had begun interviewing participants in the House page program.
It was not clear whether those questioned were current or former pages, or both.
The request for record preservation often is followed by search warrants and subpoenas, and signals that investigators are moving closer to a criminal investigation.
Rep. Deborah Pryce, who chairs the House Republican caucus, asked the House clerk to investigate what she described as rumors that Foley, while intoxicated, had once tried to enter the page residence hall but was stopped by Capitol Police.
Pryce, in a letter Tuesday after GOP House members had a conference call the night before, also asked the clerk to look into claims that the director of the page program had taken complaints about Foley's behavior to a former House clerk.
David Roth, Foley's attorney, would not comment Wednesday night.