WASHINGTON -- The House page sex scandal is filled with seemingly contradictory, perhaps inaccurate, statements, finger-pointing and blame-shifting.
In the words of White House press secretary Tony Snow, it's "a mess" -- of the Republicans' own making. There is also the politically convenient timing of a story in the final weeks of the midterm congressional elections that two major Florida newspapers had last year and chose not to report. The Miami Herald called the initial e-mail they obtained -- in which Republican Rep. Mark Foley asked for a page's picture -- "innocuous."
Subsequent sexually explicit e-mails from the Florida lawmaker to an unknown number of male pages showed just how sick this man is. They are repulsive and reprehensible, and if he hasn't committed a crime against these young men (which really isn't clear right now), then the laws dealing with predators who sexually prey on young people need to be changed.
The questions surrounding the House Republican leadership, including Speaker Dennis Hastert, is the old Watergate question posed by then-Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee: What did they know and when did they know it?
So far in this unfolding scandal, it is not clear that anyone in the GOP's House leadership knew of the explicit e-mails that were later reported by ABC News, following the so-called "inappropriate" and "over-friendly" e-mail to one page from Louisiana from Foley.
That is Hastert's story and he's sticking to it. It is also the position taken by Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and several other leaders. All of them say they told Hastert of this e-mail and he had the head of the panel that oversees (not very well, obviously) the House page program and his top aide meet with Foley. They reportedly confronted him with the e-mail and told him not to have any further contact with the pages.
News stories have played up Boehner's statements, saying that he told Hastert of his concerns but that the ultimate responsibility after that lay with the speaker to do something about it. What did not get much if any news play was Boehner's subsequent statements that the leaders, including the speaker, did not know at the time that this problem went much deeper than that.
"I know Denny Hastert, I know myself and I know my colleagues, and if we had seen the kind of sexually explicit e-mails that had been sent to another page or other pages, action would have been taken. Hell, I would have drug him out of the House by his tie and thrown him out of the place," Boehner told talk show host Sean Hannity.
More recently, though, Foley's former chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, who went to work for New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, the Republican campaign committee chairman, has come forward to say he warned senior aides on Hastert's staff about Foley's advances on male pages three years ago. Just who Fordham talked to and how he described Foley's actions is not clear. But Hastert's top aide, Scott Palmer, flatly denied it in a statement, saying "What Kirk Fordham said did not happen."
Hastert has asked the FBI to investigate the whole sordid scandal and to question everyone in the House who has any information about Foley's behavior.
Notably, the FBI was told of the first e-mail sometime ago but declined to investigate because they concluded it did not involve a crime.
The leadership's reaction to the initial e-mail in which Foley asked the page for his picture was in some respects the same as the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald who spiked the story last year.
"Some newspapers -- including this one -- knew of this message as well and did not find it worthy of a news story because it seemed innocuous. Thus, Democratic charges of a 'cover up' of Mr. Foley's activities by the Republican House leadership seem not only premature but crassly political," the Herald editorialized last week.
"But the discovery of other, more explicit, messages and confusion over who knew what and when raise questions that require answers -- preferably under oath and soon," the paper said.
Those answers will be forthcoming. Testimony will be taken under penalties of perjury. But in the end it seems this may be a story of just plain incompetence -- the failure by the elected stewards of these very young and vulnerable pages to heed the warnings, ask the right questions and take the necessary action against one of their own members.
What impact will this scandal have in the elections is unclear as this is being written. Disapproval of the Republican-run Congress is at its highest point in years, and this sad episode further feeds the perception of a dysfunctional party.
Republicans at the grassroots are clearly worried. "If you don't think Foley does not have an impact on the electorate, someone's kidding themselves," Ohio Republican chairman Bob Bennett told me.
"Is there political fallout from it, sure there is," he said, especially among "the persuadables" the swing voters in the center who will decide who controls Congress next year.