Never mind the abhorrent nature of the instant messages sent by former Rep. Mark Foley to an as-yet-unnamed former Congressional page. "It's disgusting and the House Republican leadership should call it what it is," says a GOP House leadership aide. "But this isn't just about a f#$#$-up pervert. There are political elements in this thing and Republicans are trying to get their minds around them."
For example, if this is the first "October surprise," what more is coming down the pike? And make no mistake, say Capitol Hill insiders, the Foley mess is a political dirty trick.
As the days go by, the role of the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in the Foley scandal is coming into focus. CREW, as the group likes to be called, is an organization funded by billionaire George Soros, as well as Daniel Berger, one of the Democrat Party's most prolific donors. Berger's Philadelphia law firm, Berger & Montague, is a well-known class action specialist, and Democrat insiders say that Berger has fashioned himself as an "East Coast Bill Lerach," referring to the notorious class action lawyer based in California.
Berger serves on the board of CREW, which has targeted Republican officeholders and candidates challenging Berger-supported Democrats, including retired Adm. Joseph Sestak, who is challenging Rep. Curt Weldon, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Robert Menendez (N.J.), Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, and Pennsylvania Senate Democrat candidate Bob Casey, Jr. Berger has maxed out his contributions to all these candidates, as well as fundraised for them. Berger is also a six-figure contributor to Americans Coming Together, an organized-labor-backed Democrat 527, which coordinated get out the vote activities with the DNC in 2004.
Another key figure is CREW's executive director, Melanie Sloan, who worked as a legal counsel to then-Senate Judiciary Chairman Joe Biden and minority counsel to ranking House Judiciary Democrat Rep. John Conyers.
CREW FILED ETHICS COMPLAINTS in the Senate Ethics Committee against Casey's opponent, Rick Santorum, and has attacked Weldon, listing him and Santorum on its "most corrupt" list. CREW gained national attention when it was revealed that the group had worked with former Texas Democrat House member Rep. Chris Bell in filing a House ethics complaint against then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. CREW also was involved in the Jack Abramoff scandal, suing the Secret Service for White House visitor logs, for example. And according to Democrat insiders, it has spent a disproportionate amount of time working as an opposition research organization for the Democrat Party.
"We've been hearing about some kind of oppo effort for close to six months, though there weren't names attached," says a House Democrat leadership aide. "You socialize with political types off the Hill and you'd hear rumblings that we were building up some pretty explosive stuff for the fall, and you got the sense that CREW was a big part of it."
CREW has confirmed that it received some of the initial messages between Foley and the unnamed page and forwarded it to the FBI on July 21, 2006. At the same time, media outlets have claimed to have received similar materials, but have not cited the sources. There is widespread belief that CREW operatives, or those with outside ties to CREW, were those sources. Other news outlets claim to have seen some of the email traffic between Foley and the teenager as early as last November.
AROUND THE SAME TIME THAT CREW was receiving the documents in question, a blog, StopSexPredators went live on July 28th, exactly one week after CREW received the materials, according to the blog's archives. No ownership or name is attached to the site, and it appears to have gone dormant off and on, with only sporadic posting since it initially went online.
"It would be interesting to see who is behind the site," says an RNC staffer familiar with opposition research techniques. "It doesn't smell quite right, and certainly the only reason for its existence as far as I can tell is to push the Foley story."
As with similar Democrat operations, Democrat leadership staff on Capitol Hill say they believe that CREW has worked to coordinate the Foley story with ABC News, forwarding tips and additional information to the news organization.
"It wouldn't be surprising; they have good relationships with all of the media outlets going back to the DeLay matters," says the Democratic leadership source. "If I had an ethics story to push, I'd go to them before I even went to my guys on the ethics committee. I know I'd get something from them."
REPUBLICANS FIND THEMSELVES in a terrible position, knowing that Foley is getting everything he deserves, while attempting to staunch the political damage Democrats are attempting to inflict on them, knowing that blaming the messenger -- the media -- makes them look petty. They also are concerned that more may be coming down the pike.
"With a story like this that sucks the energy out of the base, your concern is that it doesn't keep snowballing, from one man [Foley] to others," says a former RNC staffer. "What I'm worried about isn't just Foley. I'm worried about the stories the Democratic machine is going to be churning out for the next four weeks."
The issue of the base's mindset is the really the big one on the minds of Republicans. In the past two weeks, RNC officials had noticed a marked up-tick in polling and enthusiasm for the election throughout its base, something that had Democrats nervous. "We thought our base was pretty energized, but with the stories breaking that it appeared unlikely either house of Congress would fall Democratic, you sensed the air coming out of the balloon," says a Democrat political consultant. "Now, that energy is back, and you sense it just bleeding out of the
And it isn't like Republicans are helping matters. It is now part of the MSM and blogosphere mantra that House Republican leadership knew of the vile instant messages months ago, when in fact there is currently no evidence to confirm it. "The level of passing the buck isn't surprising, but it's still disappointing," says a Senate leadership aide looking across the Capitol. "Part of it is out of survival mode, but throwing everyone under the bus only encourages the media and the left to get louder. I don't recall anyone demanding Rep.Dick Gephardt resign his post because of Mel Reynolds [an Illinois congressman convicted in 1995 on 12 counts, including sexual assault and solicitation of child pornography, and other crimes; his sentence was later commuted by President Bill Clinton]. Democrats tend to hang together better in these kinds of cases. Why can't Republicans learn their lesson?"
Some say it is because the Foley case hits so close to the social conservative base. "We'd look like hypocrites if we did on Foley what the Democrats did with Frank, Studds, Reynolds, and Clinton," says a House leadership aide. "But we need a cooling down period, and we haven't had that opportunity."
Which comes back to where we started: the trickling out of the IM messages, the timing of the leaks, and the organizations driving the story in the media.
"There is no question that Foley had to resign. That there should have been a formal ethics investigation and if laws were broken a criminal investigation," says a House GOP leadership aide. "But this story should have played out in the middle of July if not earlier, perhaps when Foley was being talked about as our guy to challenge for the Republican Senate nomination. Instead, it happens just when things are looking a bit better for our party. It's frustrating, but we've overcome this stuff before. Foley is gone. For now, the question for Republicans across the country is this: do you want Nancy Pelosi as House speaker, or someone like Mike Pence? That's where conservatives should be focused."
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