Revelations in the past week of sexually explicit e-mail and instant messages from then-Rep. Mark Foley to teenage House pages have sparked calls for reform and even abolition of the page program.
Security at the program is already tight, almost to the point of excess, several former pages say. But the vulnerable period for pages, they add, comes after their semester-long stint in Washington ends, when lawmakers can still get in touch with the students but the young people are not afforded the protections they receive while on Capitol Hill.
The messages from Foley at the center of the scandal appear to have been sent after the pages completed their time in Washington. Interviews with former pages displayed a consistent pattern in descriptions of Foley's behavior: He was friendly to pages on the House floor during the program, and when the program ended he often pursued personal correspondence.
But with Republican lawmakers looking for ways to illustrate their concern about Foley's behavior, some have suggested terminating the program, at least temporarily.
"Send the pages home and really look at the program," said Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. "It's clear it's a flawed program, and it's something that needs to be fixed. While it's being fixed, these kids ought to be home so they're not encumbered by the scandal."
Security for pages while they are in Washington includes curfews, a buddy system when they leave their dormitory, 24-hour security at the residence hall, parental notification for many extracurricular activities and an orientation that lays out acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
"On a very basic level, the pages have a high degree of security," said Miles Taylor, an 18-year-old Indiana University student who served as a page from 2004 to early 2005. "The pages are very well protected."
The program enables high school juniors, 16 or 17 years old, to work on Capitol Hill for a semester. Pages attend classes in the morning and work in the Capitol each day after school, where they often deliver messages and run errands for representatives.
Eric Colleary, a 22-year-old former page who is pursuing his master's degree at the University of Minnesota, said program staff members explained codes of conduct when he was a page in 2001. He said he cannot imagine the type of behavior at the center of the Foley matter going unnoticed and unpunished.
"I was told specifically by both of the page representatives that if anything happens, if there is any uncomfortable contact, we should let them know immediately," he said. "I don't think it's any coincidence ... that the [inappropriate] e-mails are occurring after the pages left the program.
"The page supervisors can't keep track of you after you leave the program," Colleary said. Some former pages, who during the program lived together in a two-story brick building nestled among colorful rowhouses several blocks from the Capitol, have said they knew of Foley's reputed affinity for male pages. But they said they believe they would have known if anything improper had transpired between Foley and pages during the program.
Several pages said they remember meeting Foley and took his kindness, such as sending pizza and popcorn to the pages in the House cloakroom, at face value, having no reason to suspect that it might lead to anything illicit.
House Republican leaders are taking heat for their tepid response after learning late last year of an e-mail message that Foley had sent to a Louisiana page in which Foley asked for the 16-year-old's picture and inquired about what he wanted for his birthday.
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, a New York Republican, have said they knew of one e-mail exchange in late 2005 and that Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was notified, which Hastert has said he does not specifically remember. Foley was told to cease the communications, and the issue was dropped at the request of the boy's parents, Republican leaders say.
Hastert has taken steps to improve page security. He asked the House clerk last weekend to set up a hot line for current and former pages, their families and their friends to report any inappropriate behavior stemming from the program.
"I intend to get advice on how we can make this program as safe as possible," he said this week.
Part of the program's security, officials say, comes from the pages' busy schedules. School begins at 6:45 a.m. and runs until midday, when the 63 pages begin work on the House floor. Seminars and other activities occupy their evenings, and on the weekends they attend Saturday school, said Sally Collins, spokeswoman for the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the page program. The Senate has a similar, smaller program.
"It's not like there's much free or down time," she said. "There is a substantial amount of security and supervision."
Richard Clough writes for the Chicago Tribune.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times