Rep. Jim Kolbe's untold story

The House Ethics Committee report raises far more questions than it answers about the Arizona congressman's behavior.

Published December 8, 2006 10:16PM (EST)

Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, the retiring Republican, has some serious explaining to do about his oversight of the congressional page program.

That is the unmistakable conclusion one comes to after reading through the House Ethics Committee report on the 2006 page scandal, which has already brought the resignation and rehab of another politician, Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. To be sure, the report does not bring any charges against Kolbe or accuse him outright of any wrongdoing. But it raises far more questions than it answers about his behavior.

Jeff Trandahl, the former clerk of the House, told investigators that Kolbe appeared to have the same problem as former Rep. Mark Foley when it came to overfriendly contact with pages. "He, too, spent far too much time socially interacting with the pages," Trandahl said of Kolbe. "I was uncomfortable with it."

At several points, Trandahl says, he raised his concerns about Kolbe's behavior toward pages with the congressman and his staff. "I needed it all to stop," Trandahl says. When the staff took the issue to Kolbe, according to Trandahl, Kolbe's response was to "tell them to kind of mind their own business."

Kolbe did not immediately respond to the Ethics Committee's findings on Friday afternoon. No one was answering Kolbe's office phone in Washington or Sierra Vista, Ariz. A staff member in Kolbe's Tucson office took a message requesting comment. In the past, Kolbe has repeatedly denied any inappropriate behavior, either in his own relationship with pages or in his handling of Foley's relationship with pages.

More than almost any other congressman, Kolbe had a responsibility to protect the pages, having served on the House Page Board from 1995 until 2001. But on several occasions, the report shows, Kolbe appears to have shown dubious judgment. As early as the late 1990s, Trandahl said, he approached Kolbe to express concerns about Foley's overfriendliness toward pages. It is unclear what action Kolbe took, but we now know that Foley's inappropriate behavior continued.

Kolbe also continued to speak highly of Foley's relationships with pages. "I am sure I speak for all the pages when I say that one of the favorite members is the gentleman from Florida [Foley] who never fails to stop by the page desk and inquire about the pages and spend a little time talking to them," Kolbe said on June 9, 2000, according to a widely quoted snippet from the Congressional Record.

In 2001, a former page e-mailed Kolbe to complain about an instant message that Foley had sent him, in which Foley had discussed the size of his penis, according to the page's testimony to investigators. Kolbe denies that he ever read the message, or knew its exact content, but the record shows that his response was still minimal. Instead of investigating what Foley was doing, he merely asked a member of his staff to tell a member of Foley's staff to tell Foley to knock it off. Then he told Trandahl, the clerk of the House, what he had done. "That was the end of it," Kolbe told investigators.

As Tim Grieve pointed out earlier today, five years later, after the Foley scandal had made it into the press, the same page contacted Kolbe again to ask whether he should go public with the 2001 instant message. Kolbe's answer, according to the page, was this: "It is best that you don't even bring this up with anybody  There is no good that can come from it if you actually talk about this. The man has resigned anyway." Not exactly the sort of response that instills confidence in a man who once oversaw the page program.

Kolbe, who is the only openly gay Republican in Congress, will step down in the next several weeks, having decided against running for reelection. But the unanswered questions of what he knew about inappropriate behavior, and whether he acted inappropriately, will linger. The Ethics Committee report cannot be read as a vindication of Kolbe's role in the scandal.

According to the report, the Justice Department has opened a "preliminary inquiry" into Kolbe's behavior, a fact that hindered the Ethics Committee investigation. "Rep. Kolbe did not provide full and complete testimony regarding the allegations, citing the pending federal inquiry," the House investigators wrote. "The Investigative Subcommittee therefore makes no findings and draws no conclusions regarding the allegations."

But the American people still have a right to demand accountability, even if Kolbe never broke a criminal statute. He is a public official. He was serving with the public trust. He owes the public an explanation.

UPDATE: On Friday night, Kolbe released the following statement.

"The Chairman of the House Committee today said that 'doing the right thing is the only acceptable option.' I agree, and that is precisely what I did in response to the information provided to me and to those on my staff. I am continuing to cooperate with other reviews and I am confident that when they are complete they will all conclude that I have acted appropriately."

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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