WASHINGTON (AP) – The House ethics committee is known for moving at a glacial pace – or not at all – but its members raced like sprinters Thursday in launching an investigation of a House page scandal.

Less than a week after the House referred the investigation to its internal watchdog, the committee met for the first time. A newly formed investigative subcommittee immediately approved nearly four dozen subpoenas for witnesses and documents. Its leaders promised a quick investigation that would go “wherever the evidence leads us.”

Republicans would like to see any notion of a cover-up by GOP House members and their leaders dispelled before the midterm elections just over a month from now.

Speaker Dennis Hastert said he accepted responsibility for any earlier failures to investigate complaints of inappropriate behavior by Rep. Mark Foley toward teenage male pages. But he resisted pressure to step down.

“Ultimately … the buck stops here,” the Republican speaker said, borrowing the famous phrase of a Democratic president, Harry Truman.

Hastert held to his assertion that he did not know about Foley’s e-mails and instant messages to former pages until the scandal broke last week. In the past several days, several Republican lawmakers and staff members said they were aware of the messages. Democrats were not notified.

The ethics committee promised to finish its investigation in weeks, not months, but it was unclear whether that would occur before the Nov. 7 election. Hastert’s handling of the issue has brought harsh criticism from some fellow Republicans and conservative activists.

An AP-Ipsos poll found that about half of likely voters say recent disclosures of corruption and scandal in Congress will be “very” or “extremely” important when they cast their votes. That group is much more likely to vote Democratic.

Hastert got a boost Thursday evening from President Bush, who called and expressed his support.

“The president thanked him for going out and making a clear public statement that said the House leadership takes responsibility and is accountable,” White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said. “He said he appreciated that when they got the information, they swiftly took action making clear that Rep. Foley should step down and promptly requested a Department of Justice investigation. And he expressed his support for the speaker.”

The speaker, at a news conference, mixed a newfound contriteness with defiance.

“Could we have done it better? Could the page board have handled it better? In retrospect, probably yes. But at the time what we knew and what we acted upon was what we had.”

But he also vowed to win re-election and run for House speaker again.

While the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct – the ethics committee – is investigating potential violations of House rules, the Justice Department appeared to be moving with dispatch in its criminal investigation.

Timothy Heaphy, a lawyer for ex-Foley chief of staff Kirk Fordham, said his client had just met with the FBI. Fordham emerged as a key figure Wednesday when he told reporters that he had talked three years ago with top aides to Hastert about Foley’s conduct with pages. His comments pushed back the time when information may have reached the speaker’s office.

The FBI also contacted a former congressional page from Kentucky, an aide to a Kentucky congressman said.

Daniel London, chief of staff to Rep. Ron Lewis, R-Ky., said Lewis’ Washington office was contacted Tuesday by the man, who served as a House page in 2001. London said the former page did not want to be identified.

Ethics committee chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and ranking Democrat Howard Berman of California would provide no details on the subpoenas but told a news conference the committee was seeking both testimony and documents.

Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said the speaker had not yet received a subpoena from the ethics committee but was willing to testify. “If the ethics committee asks him to, of course,” Bonjean told The Associated Press.

Several lawmakers and aides could logically be summoned, based on what is known so far. The committee also could subpoena former lawmakers and staff, including Foley, a Florida Republican, and Fordham. However, the House has no authority to punish anyone no longer a member of Congress or an employee.

According to public statements and an internal review by Hastert’s office, a likely list of those who had some involvement in events and could be summoned include: Hastert aides Tim Kennedy, Mike Stokke, Ted Van Der Meid and Scott Palmer; former Clerk of the House Jeff Trandahl; Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-La., who became aware that Foley sent questionable e-mails to a page he sponsored; Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., who spoke with Alexander about Foley; Majority Leader John Boehner; and Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman of the board that oversees the page program.

Hastings and Berman, in an unusual procedural move, said they will personally lead the investigation, joined by Reps. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., whose district adjoins Hastert’s, and Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio. Their investigative subcommittee thus has two Republicans and two Democrats.

“We pledge to you that our investigation will go wherever the evidence leads us,” Hastings said.

Berman said the committee did not consider suggestions from congressional watchdog groups and editorial writers to name an outside counsel. He said the committee could do the job without partisanship.

“We have, we all have strong feelings about party, about issues, about philosophy. But for purposes of this investigation, those feelings are irrelevant. And I think that’s all that the chairman and I are trying to say,” Berman said.

Meanwhile, the family of a former Louisiana page – whose chatty but not sexually explicit e-mails from Foley in 2005 touched off the scandal – issued a statement Thursday asking the media to also take its spotlight off him.

The family, in a statement issued anonymously to, and verified by CNN, said Alexander did what they sought when they asked him last fall to “see that Congressman Foley stop e-mailing or contacting our son and to otherwise drop the matter to avoid a media frenzy.”

Also Thursday, ABC News reported that three more pages, one each from 1998, 2000 and 2002, have come forward detailing sexual approaches from Foley over the Internet.

In the criminal probe, the Justice Department and congressional attorneys were negotiating ways to give investigators access to Foley’s files without inciting a legal battle. A major dispute broke out between Congress and the department this year when the FBI raided the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La. in a corruption investigation. Jefferson has not been charged.

Prosecutors still lack enough evidence suggesting Foley broke federal laws to ask for a warrant to search his office computers – which could hold the proof investigators are seeking, according to a senior Justice Department official.

Among the top sticking points in the discussions, according to the official, are questions about how privileged legislative material – which generally includes work on bills – could be protected from executive branch investigators. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity about matters under investigation.

Hastert announced that a tip line had been activated for people to call if they have information on Foley or any problems with the page program, which brings high school students from around the nation to work on Capitol Hill. The number is 866-348-0481.



Associated Press writers Lara Jakes Jordan and Andrew Taylor in Washington and Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.



On the Net:

House ethics committee: http://www.house.gov/ethics



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