A casualty of the Mark Foley cyberspace sex scandal is the once-close relationship between Illinois Republicans Rep. John Shimkus and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.
If top staffers in Hastert's office had knowledge of Foley's overly friendly interest in pages -- as is alleged by Foley's former chief of staff -- then Shimkus did not know everything he needed to know when he walked into Foley's House office in November 2005 to talk to him about a questionable e-mail from a former page, on a mission that originated in the speaker's office.
Moreover, Hastert's team, by asking Shimkus to appear at a press conference with the speaker in Washington last Monday -- but not letting him take questions -- made a bad situation for Shimkus worse.
"I am now,'' said Shimkus when we talked last week, "a little jaded.''
A very cautious Shimkus taped our phone conversation and said it was now his standard operating procedure for all of his interviews.
Shimkus' role in the Foley scandal consists of a few hours -- if that long -- on that November afternoon, when, in his role as chairman of the House page board, he told Foley to cut out any contact with pages. He did not tell the other members of the House Page Board -- a Republican and a Democrat -- about the incident, which he said he now regrets.
Hastert personally tapped Shimkus for the page board job in 2001, no doubt because Shimkus is a former high school teacher and a West Point graduate who served as an Army ranger and paratrooper.
"The page program needed some discipline,'' said Shimkus.
Shimkus would not turn down a Hastert assignment; he owed much of his quick rise in Congress to Hastert. As a freshman, Hastert helped him get a plum assignment on the Commerce Committee. The speaker also tapped Shimkus, of Collinsville, to be a U.S. delegate to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, a perk with regular overseas travel.
A week ago Sunday, about 8 p.m., Shimkus arrived at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville to pick up his ride back to Washington. As speaker, Hastert flies on U.S. aircraft. The government plane picked up Shimkus and then headed to Aurora to board Hastert, who spent the weekend at his Plano home.
Hastert's team was scrambling in reaction to the escalating fallout from the Foley scandal.
Shimkus was returning to the capital because his staff had gotten an urgent call earlier in the day from Hastert deputy chief of staff Mike Stokke, who wanted Shimkus at the press conference with Hastert, putting him on a national stage on their terms.
What was Shimkus' role? Here's what he told me, picking up the story when he sits down with House Clerk Jeff Trandahl on that November day:
Shimkus was told by Trandahl that the parents of a former page wanted Foley to stop contacting their son.
Shimkus said Trandahl showed him a piece of paper with typed excerpts of the Foley e-mail.
"The parents, from my understanding, would not give anybody the e-mails. They would only share the words of the e-mail that were of concern to them....
"So I looked at it, I scanned the words, I gave them back to Jeff and said, 'OK, once voting is over, let's go talk to Congressman Foley.' And that is what we did.''
Would have acted differently
"In Foley's office, I handed him the example, the excerpts of the e-mail. So he could see. I had to do that, show him something.''
Foley made his excuses. Shimkus, with nothing more to go on, told him to "stop contacting this page and stay away from the pages.''
I asked if the parents were notified.
"Not by me,'' Shimkus said.
I asked Shimkus if it occurred to him to try to get more of the e-mail message (the entire message, when it surfaced in news reports and blogs, was hardly as innocent as Foley maintained to Shimkus).
"I did not,'' he said.
Why did he not tell his counterparts on the page board?
"I was asked to keep this in confidence.''
I asked if he thought to go back to the parents and tell them they had a duty to tell the page board.
"I think, 20-20 hindsight, there are a lot of things I would have done differently.''
• • • •
ON SOROS, HASTERT'S ROOMMATES
Since the Foley scandal erupted, the spotlight on Hastert brought to the surface two items that could use some clarification:
• • The speaker's housing arrangement in Washington.
• • Hastert's accusation, with no evidence, that financier George Soros, a major Democratic benefactor, was part of a Democratic scheme to get out the Foley story. Hastert has had a record of hostility toward Soros since August 2004.
On the housing front: Hastert owns a town house in Washington, and when he is in the city, he lives there with chief of staff Scott Palmer -- at the center of a dispute of what he knew and when -- and deputy chief of staff Mike Stokke. Hastert's 2005 financial disclosure statement shows rental income of between $5,001 and $15,000 from the town house.
I wrote about Hastert's roommates in the Sun-Times last year and put it this way in a September 2002 article in the magazine Illinois Issues:
"Hastert's inner circle consists of a small, trusted group of aides, mostly all white and all male. Stokke, his political adviser, and Scott Palmer, his chief of staff, have worked with Hastert for years. They know Illinois politics as well as the national scene. While in Washington, the three room together in a town house Hastert owns, where none of them has cooked a meal since 1986. Says Hastert, 'I made tea once.' His sons also have bunked at the town house."
Regarding Soros: During the 2004 presidential contest, billionaire Soros poured millions of dollars into groups dedicated to turning out Democratic votes.
On Aug. 29, 2004, Hastert, on "Fox News Sunday" on the eve of the Republican convention in New York, suggested Soros may have gotten rich off of drug-related activities. "You know, I don't know where George Soros gets his money," Hastert said. "I don't know where -- if it comes from overseas or from drug groups or where it comes from."
Soros demanded an apology, and Hastert wrote a tepid and politically charged reply.
The real back story -- and I think a part of the animosity with Soros -- has nothing to do with Foley or politics. It has to do with Hastert's long-time involvement in anti-drug efforts. Soros has funded groups looking at other solutions to combat drugs; in some cases, that includes legalization.
Page-gate scoop: I've learned each member of the House is being asked to contact past and present pages to see if they have had any improper conduct with Foley. The letter is signed by the chairman and ranking Democrat of the House Ethics panel, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.).
Though Hastings and Berman announced last week that they expect to issue some four dozen subpoenas, the letter makes clear they expect House members and staff to come forward with information.