Friday, September 29

crusader against sexual predators was one himself

Lawmaker Quits Over E-Mail Sent to Teenage Pages

WASHINGTON, Sept. 29 — In six terms representing a wealthy swath of southern Florida, Representative Mark Foley, a Republican, became well known for his ardent efforts to safeguard the young and vulnerable, leading the House caucus on missing and exploited children and championing laws against sexual predators.

On Friday, Mr. Foley resigned abruptly after being confronted with a series of sexually explicit Internet messages he is reported to have sent to under-age Congressional pages. He is thus accused of being the very kind of predator he had denounced.

“I am deeply sorry,” Mr. Foley, 52, said in a three-sentence statement released by his office, “and I apologize for letting down my family and the people of Florida I have had the privilege to represent.” The statement did not refer specifically to the Internet messages.

The first e-mail messages to one male page, sexually suggestive but not explicit, were reported by ABC News on Thursday. Mr. Foley, a member of the House Republican leadership, dismissed them as “overly friendly” but not inappropriate.

But by Friday, other pages had come forward with more blatant instant messages. “What ya wearing?” Mr. Foley wrote to one, according to the network. “Tshirt and shorts,” the teenager responded. “Love to slip them off of you,” Mr. Foley replied.

ABC News said it had read him several other messages that were far more graphic. Within hours, Mr. Foley resigned in a one-sentence letter to Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, and he left the Capitol without answering questions.

The resignation threw Congressional Republicans off stride on the day they were breaking to campaign for the midterm elections just five weeks away. It also gave Democrats hopes of capturing another seat in November. Even by the standards of Washington, this revelation stunned Mr. Foley’s colleagues for how openly he had courted danger.

According to ABC, he exchanged instant messages with the pages using his initials and year of birth: “MAF54.” And he might have known he would be watched; the pages, young teenagers in navy blue uniforms who open doors and carry messages and water to members on the House and Senate floors, are closely guarded, not only for their vulnerability, but because they have been the object of past Congressional scandals.

The page who received the first e-mail messages told ABC News that people in the program had warned his class to watch out for Mr. Foley.

The page worked for Representative Rodney Alexander, Republican of Louisiana, and sent the messages to a colleague in the office with a note saying they had “freaked me out.”

Mr. Foley’s rise in Florida politics had been striking. He told interviewers of getting hooked on politics after he moved to Florida from Massachusetts as a small child, watching people flock around the local congressman as he shook hands at a shopping center in southern Florida.

He started a small family restaurant at age 20 and by 23 was elected to the city commission in Lake Worth, a working-class town south of West Palm Beach. He was known as a tireless campaigner and was elected to the State Legislature in 1990, and to Congress in 1994, at age 40. He was appointed to the powerful Ways and Means committee and was named one of the party’s deputy whips by Tom DeLay, then the House Republican leader.

“He had a meteoric rise,” said Al Cardenas, a former leader of the Florida Republican Party who described himself as a longtime friend of Mr. Foley’s. “In a span of six years he went through an incredible ascension in our party. He worked real hard, he had a very engaging personality, and people took him very seriously at a young age.”

As a moderate Republican in Congress, Mr. Foley proved a good ideological match for his district, centered in the wealthy northern end of Palm Beach County. He was fiscally conservative but more moderate on social and environmental issues.

He spoke vehemently about the need to protect children against pedophiles. “We track library books better than we do sexual predators,” he said, arguing the need for the Children’s Safety Act, passed by the House in 2005.

Questions about his sexuality swirled beginning with his first run for Congress, when his opponent in the Republican primary sent out mailings saying Mr. Foley was gay.

He was single and seemed to be uncommonly focused on politics. He sometimes referred to his sister, Donna, who often served as his campaign manager, as his “surrogate wife.”

In 2003, when he was considered the front-runner in a crowded primary race for the Senate seat being vacated by Bob Graham, Mr. Foley gave a news conference to denounce rumors that he was gay but refused to say whether he was. A few months later, he dropped out of the race, saying he needed to spend more time with his father, who had prostate cancer.

Many believed he had stepped away from the race to avoid questions about his sexual orientation.

“There were accusations made that he was gay, and clearly that had an impact on him deciding not to run for Senate,” said Jim Kane, the chief pollster for Florida Voter, a nonpartisan polling organization. “He knew the scrutiny was clearly going to be much different once he stepped up a notch.”

Mr. Foley reportedly sent the messages to the first page in August 2005. Mr. Alexander told a Louisiana newspaper this week that he had told the page’s parents and the Republican House leadership about them “10 or 11 months ago.” But House leaders said Friday that they had not known about the incident until the day before.

Although his race was considered competitive, Mr. Foley had been favored to win re-election; President Bush won his district in 2004 with 54 percent of the vote.

But the campaign between Mr. Foley and his Democratic opponent, Tim Mahoney, had been combative. Mr. Mahoney, a businessman and former Republican, sued Mr. Foley this month, saying Mr. Foley had defamed him in campaign advertisements.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had included the campaign in its list of “emerging races,” or the 50 seats most primed for takeover. Mr. Mahoney, Democrats said, was a good candidate even before the scandal, with $1 million in his campaign chest.

State Republican Party leaders said they would meet with officials from each of the counties in Mr. Foley’s district to nominate someone to replace him.

But an election official in Florida said Friday night that Mr. Foley’s name would have to remain on the ballot. Any votes for him will be counted for his replacement, the official said.

Kate Zernike reported from Washington, and Abby Goodnoughfrom Lake Worth, Fla.