With Republican leaders scrambling to contain the political fallout from the latest Washington sex scandal mere weeks before congressional elections, the FBI is examining former Republican congressman Mark Foley's e-mail exchanges with teenage boys to see if laws were broken.
The FBI "is conducting an assessment to see if there's been a violation of federal law," FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said on Sunday, declining to elaborate.
Foley, a congressman from Florida, abruptly quit Congress on Friday after reports surfaced that he had sent sexually charged electronic messages to boys working as congressional pages. Pages are teenagers who work temporarily as messengers in Congress.
The disclosure sent House Republicans into damage control mode amid charges by Democrats that some House leaders may have known for months about Foley's inappropriate overtures toward the young pages.
The Republicans are working to maintain their majority in Congress in Nov. 7 elections.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican, in a letter sent on Sunday to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, asked the Justice Department to "conduct an investigation of Mr. Foley's conduct with current and former House pages."
White House counsel Dan Bartlett called the allegations involving Foley shocking, while Democrats demanded that investigators determine whether Republican leaders tried to cover up Foley's actions for political reasons.
"The attorney general should open a full-scale investigation immediately," Senate Democratic lead-er Harry Reid said in a statement, including whether Republican leaders "knew there was a problem and ignored it to preserve a congressional seat this election year."
FBI cyber sleuths are looking into the text of some of the Foley messages, checking to see how many e-mails and instant electronic messages were sent and how many computers were used, a law enforcement official said on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
The FBI also was trying to determine if any of the teenagers who received messages are willing to cooperate with the investigation, the official said.
Ironically, Foley, who is 52 and single, could be found to have vio-lated a law that he helped to write as co-chairman of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus.
"Republican leaders have admitted to knowing about Mr. Foley's outrageous behavior for six months to a year, and they chose to cover it up rather than to protect these children," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said.
Congressman Thomas Reynolds, head of the House Republican election effort, said he told Hastert months ago about the allegations involving a 16-year-old boy from Louisiana.
Hastert acknowledged that his staff had been made aware of concerns about what they termed "over-friendly" e-mails Foley had sent to the teenager in the fall of last year and that they referred the matter to the House clerk.
But Hastert said those e-mails were not viewed as "sexual in nature" and that he was not aware of "a different set of communications which were sexually explicit ... which Mr. Foley reportedly sent another former page or pages."
Hastert asked the Justice Department to investigate "anyone who had specific knowledge of the content of any sexually explicit communications between Mr. Foley and any former or current House pages and what actions such individuals took, if any, to provide them to law enforcement."