Looking past Hastert: Should Rep. John Shimkus resign?

The head of the House Page Board says it's "ludicrous" to expect him to have done more to protect pages from Rep. Mark Foley.

Published October 4, 2006 4:54PM (EDT)

One way or another, the National Review says, Dennis Hastert probably won't be the speaker of the House come January: If Democrats don't take control of the chamber in November, Republicans "may well decide" that it's time to elect new leadership anyway.

The National Review's editors say that Hastert might not deserve such treatment. Yes, he was out of the loop when it mattered -- well, maybe -- then clueless when he was brought in and evasive once the story finally broke. But "if any congressman should resign over mishandling this affair," the editors say, it's Illinois Rep. John Shimkus, the chairman of the House Page Board.

They've got a point.

Shimkus, you'll recall, heard about Foley's e-mails to a 16-year-old former page from Rep. Rodney Alexander sometime last fall. He didn't tell his Democratic or Republican colleagues on the Page Board about the e-mails. He didn't demand to see the e-mails; he just accepted Rep. Alexander's characterization of them and Foley's claim that they were innocent. So far as we can tell, he didn't interview any pages, didn't talk with any experts who might have advised him about what the e-mails meant, and didn't ask Foley whether he'd had inappropriate contact with anybody else.

Did Shimkus tell Foley to steer clear of other pages? Like Dennis Hastert, John Boehner and Tom Reynolds, Shimkus can't seem to keep his story straight. When the Foley story first broke, Shimkus issued a statement in which he said that he had "ordered Congressman Foley to cease all contact" with the 16-year-old former page and "advised him to be especially mindful of his conduct with respect to current and former House pages." That would seem to take as a given that Foley would be having some contact with current and former pages. But in a newspaper interview Tuesday, Shimkus insisted that he told Foley to "stay away from the pages."

Whatever. Should Shimkus have done more than he did? Of course he should have, and the National Review makes the case as well as anyone:

"First of all, what [Shimkus and Hastert's staff] had was not just a family's complaint; it was a family's justified complaint. Most pages' families are eager for them to develop mentoring relationships with congressmen; they got their kids into the page program to make contacts. That the parents wanted to cut off contact should have been a sign that something was very wrong. And the speaker's office knew that something was wrong. If a page's parents had complained about contact from some other congressman, neither Shimkus nor Hastert's office would have followed it up at all, let alone warned the congressman to quit e-mailing.

"They took it seriously because they knew that Foley was, well, creepy. But not seriously enough to trouble themselves to do more, such as demanding to read the e-mails. They took it seriously enough to warn Foley; but not seriously enough to inform the other members of the page committee.

"They claim that the e-mails do not contain any shocking sexual references. Had they bothered to read them at the time, however, they would have noticed a few things. This was not just a case of one page's feeling that the congressman was contacting him inappropriately -- as unusual as that would be by itself. The page also reported that the congressman had had contact with another male page that, to the complaining page, also seemed inappropriate. (And would seem questionable to anyone.) Finally, the page reported that another page -- he even gave her first name! -- had said that a congressman had 'hit on pages.'"

"Under the circumstances, Rep. Alexander should have seen that the issue went far beyond the desires of one page's family. There was evidence here that a congressman, probably Foley, was looking for sex with pages. It may not have been enough evidence to warrant an FBI investigation ... But it should have triggered a real investigation by House officials, beginning with Shimkus' committee: an investigation not limited to a friendly conversation with Rep. Foley."

Shimkus continues to defend his actions. In an interview with Illinois' State Journal-Register Tuesday, he said it was "ludicrous" and "ridiculous" to expect him to have done more than the FBI or "credible investigative journalists" did when they received copies of Foley's e-mail exchange with the former page.

But of course it was Shimkus' House Page Board, not the FBI or random journalists, who had the responsibility to protect the House pages. And when Shimkus decided to "investigate" the Foley e-mails without saying a word to the two other elected representatives on the board, well, he pretty much put the board's responsibility on his shoulders alone.

In what may be the saddest commentary yet on this whole affair, Republican Rep. Ray LaHood said today that the House should shut down the page program, at least for a while. Can it really be that 435 members of Congress, elected by the people and vested with the legislative powers of our nation, can't be trusted to protect a few dozen high school juniors from one of their own? If that's the case -- and with the likes of John Shimkus running the place, it seems to be -- then it's not just the page program that needs a timeout.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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