In Washington, a Net protector or predator?

Mark Foley, who resigned from Congress over sex-chat allegations, touted himself as its leading defender of children on the Net.

Mark Foley, who abruptly resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives last week after disclosures of inappropriate conversations with a teenage page, had spent years positioning himself as Congress' leading defender of children on the Internet.

Foley, a Republican who represented the area near Palm Beach, Fla., had spearheaded a legislative crackdown on Internet sites that post provocative photographs of teenage and preteen youth. He had pushed to open FBI databases to track sex offenders. He tried to force sexually explicit Web sites to label themselves accordingly.

Those public stances, coupled with Foley's strident denunciations of adults who prey on America's youth, further fueled the political hurricane surrounding his resignation just five weeks before the November elections. They also pose the troubling question of how a self-proclaimed Internet decency defender--if the leaked e-mail and chat transcripts are accurate--could be the very sort of person he claimed to despise.

The transcripts appear to show how Foley, 52, engaged in sexually explicit discussions with minors. One exchange posted by ABC News on its Web site on Monday describes how Maf54, Foley's screen name, set up a rendezvous with a teenage boy in San Diego and was planning another in Washington, D.C.

"It's very classic what you would call 'grooming behavior' on the part of an adult toward a juvenile," said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Finkelhor described the exchange as part of an "effort to be interested in the kid, to identify with what the kid's doing and be a pal and be real friendly...There's an effort to kind of push the boundaries, keep moving the boundaries closer and closer to the explicit."

The allegations of Foley's clandestine flirtations have prompted House Republicans to distance themselves from him, as well as defend themselves from accusations that they knew about the ex-congressman's proclivities for at least six months and did nothing about it.

"The page program is an important part of this institution," Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told reporters on Monday. "It has inspired many generations to enter public service. It is a trust, and as a parent and as the speaker of the House, I am disgusted that Congressman Foley broke that trust."

However, House Democrats are asserting that the Republican leadership had bottled up earlier complaints about Foley's unwanted attentions toward pages and had not brought them to the attention of the full House Page Board.

"Speaker Hastert's announcement this afternoon is yet another example of the House Republican leadership being more concerned with finding political cover for themselves than with the safety and well-being of the House pages," said Michigan Rep. Dale Kildee, the Democrats' representative on the House Page Board.

In a sign that the scandal is eroding support for House Republicans among influential conservatives, The Washington Times on Tuesday published an editorial that called on Hastert to resign.

"Hastert has forfeited the confidence of the public and his party, and he cannot preside over the necessary coming investigation, an investigation that must examine his own inept performance," the editorial said.

Also on Monday, the liberal-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, said that in July it had turned over to the FBI disturbing messages apparently from Foley with no response the agency. The FBI said that it is investigating the matter.

Five attempts at Net crackdowns
Perhaps more than any other politician since Sen. James Exon, the Nebraska Democrat who drafted the 1996 Communications Decency Act, Foley focused on parents' worries about children and the Internet.

Foley, who was co-chairman of the House's Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, was the lead sponsor for at least five bills in 2005 and 2006 aimed at protecting minors. One, the Child Modeling Exploitation Prevention Act, would create a new federal felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison for anyone who exploits minors by using their image for purposes other than legitimate marketing. (According to the leaked chat transcripts, Foley actively solicited photographs from minors.)

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