WASHINGTON – The FBI is looking at whether former Florida Rep. Mark Foley’s computer exchanges with underage House pages broke any laws, an FBI spokesman said late Sunday.

The agency is “conducting an assessment to determine if there has been any violation of federal law,” the FBI’s Stephen Kodak said.

Under fire from Democrats, House Speaker Dennis Hastert also asked Sunday that U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales – and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement – look into the case.

On Friday ABC News had released a series of sexually explicit instant messaging sessions between Foley and what it said were underage pages – high schoolers who serve as messengers in the House and Senate.

Hastert’s letters to Gonzales and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush say the sexually explicit instant messages between Foley and pages “warrant a criminal referral.”

And Hastert notes the messages were “reportedly generated three years ago” and “it is important to know who may have had the communications and why they were not given to prosecutors before now.

“I request that the scope of your investigation include any and all individuals who may have been aware of this matter – be they members of Congress, employees of the House of Representatives, or anyone outside the Congress,” he wrote.

His letter drew a sharp distinction between the instant messaging sessions – which Hastert said he was never made aware of – and e-mails between Foley and a former House page, which top GOP leaders saw in 2005. Foley was told to cease contact with the page.

Hastert noted that the same e-mails were viewed by editors at The St. Petersburg Times, which reviewed them, considered them “friendly chit chat” and declined to run a story.

Miami Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler said Sunday the newspaper also saw the same e-mails and “didn’t feel there was sufficient clarity in the e-mails to warrant a story.”

“We determined after discussion among several senior editors, including myself, that the content of the messages was too ambiguous to lead to a news story,” Fiedler said.

The call for a criminal investigation came as Democrats signaled that they plan to use the Republican House leaders’ response to reports of the e-mails sent by Foley as an issue in the pivotal November election.

Foley, a Florida Republican, gave no reason for leaving but said he was “deeply sorry” and resigned Friday after the subsequent, sexually explicit instant messages were disclosed by ABC News.

Earlier Sunday, Democrats in both chambers, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, called for investigations.

Democrats also seized on Ohio Republican Sen. Mike DeWine’s reluctance at a televised debate Sunday to say that House leaders who knew about the e-mails Foley sent to the 16-year-old House page should resign immediately.

DeWine decried Foley’s behavior and called for a “full investigation,” but declined to say that House leadership step down if they knew about the e-mails.

“I think you have to look and see what they knew and what they did about it,” DeWine said during the debate on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I would want to know what they did about it. And, you know, this is reprehensible.”

Minutes after the debate ended between DeWine and Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sent out a press release saying DeWine “refuses to hold GOP leaders accountable over the Foley scandal.”

Over the weekend Republicans sought to defend their handling of the matter, with Hastert providing what his office called a “preliminary” report of when House leaders were alerted to the situation and how they handled it.

Hastert’s office said Saturday his office was contacted last fall by a staff member in the office of Louisiana Republican Rep. Rodney Alexander, where the page once worked. The boy said in an e-mail to Alexander’s office that the computer exchange with Foley “freaked him out” and was “sick..sick..sick.”

Hastert’s office said the clerk of the House was assured that the nature of the e-mail exchange was not of a sexual nature, although it was characterized as “overly friendly.” The e-mails are chatty and at one point Foley asks the teen to send him a “pic.”

The House clerk and Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., head of the page board, asked Foley about the e-mail and told Foley to “immediately cease any communication with the young man.”

Hastert’s office underscored that he did not know of the sexually explicit instant messages until ABC News posted them on its Web site on Friday. “In fact, no one was ever made aware of any sexually explicit e-mail or text messages at any time,” Hastert’s office said.

The sex scandal comes just a month before the GOP tries to hold onto its majority in the House and Senate in the wake of an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and declining poll numbers for the Republican-led Congress that gave President Bush the go-ahead.

White House special counsel Dan Bartlett said the Bush administration didn’t know anything about the Foley matter until it broke open Friday.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of this, the leadership is, and that’s very important because we need to make sure the page system is one in which children can come up here and work and make sure they are protected,” Bartlett said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

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