US House ethics committee ready to launch investigation into e-mail scandal

The leader of the House of Representatives' job is on the line as members of the House ethics committee decide how to launch a credible investigation of former Congressman Mark Foley's salacious computer messages to teenage pages.

An extraordinary political spectacle surrounded the committee's first scheduled meeting Thursday. Republicans publicly blamed Speaker Dennis Hastert for failing to take action after he was warned about the messages, and a former Foley aide said he told party leaders about the Florida Republican's conduct years earlier than they have acknowledged.

With Republicans concerned about maintaining their congressional majority in November elections, political support for Hastert was ebbing. Republican officials said at least a few disgruntled members of the party's rank and file had discussed whether to call on the speaker to step aside. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

Hastert told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday night that he has no thoughts of resigning. He blamed ABC News, which broke the Foley e-mail story, and Democratic operatives for the mushrooming scandal.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, ordered House officials to preserve all records related to Foley's electronic correspondence with teenagers. The request for record preservation is often followed by search warrants and subpoenas, and signal that investigators are moving closer to a criminal investigation.

Kirk Fordham, the former Foley aide, said in an interview with The Associated Press that more than three years ago he had "more than one conversation with senior staff at the highest level of the House of Representatives asking them to intervene." He declined to identify them, but officials said Scott 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.

Palmer said through a spokesman, "What Kirk Fordham said did not happen."

Fordham resigned Wednesday as chief of staff to Congressman Thomas Reynolds, the House Republican campaign chief who says he alerted Hastert to concerns about Foley last spring.

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