US House investigators hearing from witnesses who could damage Republicans at polls

Investigators are questioning witnesses in a congressional sex scandal whose information could potentially sink Republicans trying to maintain a congressional majority in next month's elections.

The testimony Thursday of former Congressman Mark Foley's chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, will directly question the truthfulness of Speaker Dennis Hastert's top aide. Foley resigned two weeks ago after it was discovered he had sent sexually charged electronic messages to male teenage assistants, called pages.

Fordham said he can demonstrate that he warned Hastert chief of staff Scott Palmer about Foley's approaches to male pages in 2002 or 2003. Palmer denied the warning took place.

Hastert's aides said they first learned of an overly friendly Foley e-mail to a former page in the fall of 2005 and never knew about sexually explicit messages to others until late last month when they became public.

The FBI is also investigating, trying to determine whether any crimes were committed by Foley.

While the ethics committee will try to learn who's telling the truth, the court of public opinion appeared to be moving against the Republicans, who hold majorities in both the 435-seat House and the 100-seat Senate.

In the House, Democrats need a 15-seat pickup to gain control. In the Senate, they need six.

Polls show most Americans say the House Republican leadership worried more about politics than the safety of teenage pages. However, most also say Democrats would not have handled the situation better.

Several polls also show a split on whether Hastert should step down, with just under half of those surveyed saying he should. More than half in several polls said Hastert tried to cover up what he knew about Foley.

Next week, the committee is to hear from Republican Congressman Rodney Alexander, whose testimony also will raise questions about how Republican leaders handled the Foley problem. A former page he sponsored from his state, Louisiana, received friendly e-mails from Foley that were not sexually explicit but raised questions about Foley's motives.

The former page contacted Alexander's office about Foley in fall 2005. Foley had asked the boy's age then 16 and his birthday. Foley also requested a photo.

There is no dispute that Alexander's chief of staff, who also will be questioned, called Hastert's office. This, according to a report by Hastert, was the initial notification that something was wrong, reports AP.

Last spring, Alexander mentioned the Foley situation to House Majority Leader John Boehner. Alexander said Boehner referred him to Congressman Tom Reynolds, the chairman of the House Republican campaign organization.

Both Boehner and Reynolds said they spoke with Hastert, who says he cannot recall those conversations and raised questions about whether they occurred.

Boehner initially quoted Hastert as telling him the Louisiana page's complaint "had been taken care of."

Foley resigned Sept. 29 after his sexually explicit instant messages to former pages became public.