By Peter Hamby
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Capitol Hill controversies are nothing new, but as details emerge about former Rep. Mark Foley's e-mails and instant messages with underage congressional pages it's clear that the Internet is reinventing the Washington scandal.
Not since the revelations in independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report on the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair have the intimate and graphic details of a Beltway scandal been at American fingertips. Most of Foley's discussions are too lurid for television, but viewers are able to go online and read the transcripts.
One can imagine that if not for the Internet, Mark Foley might still be representing Florida's 16th Congressional District; Foley's digital trail proved to be his downfall. However, aside from the instant messages and e-mails themselves, the Web is shaping this story in manifold ways.
One of the more curious angles to emerge from the scandal surrounding Foley is the creation of a little-known Web site called Stop Sex Predators. It was at that site on September 24, four days before ABC News reported Foley's e-mails with a 16-year-old page, that the Florida congressman's correspondence first appeared.
Because the site was virtually unknown at the time, bloggers were skeptical of the e-mails' authenticity. Nothing is known about the site beyond the small number of postings on it.
The site appeared in July, declaring that it was "dedicated to exposing sex predators before they can get to our kids."
Over the next two months the blog featured a few intermittent postings on notable public sex scandals.
Then on September 21, Stop Sex Predators says, it received e-mails from readers suggesting Foley was a "danger to any young, slightly attractive young man on The Hill."
Three days later, the e-mails from Foley to the 16-year-old page -- one of which requested a photo -- were posted on the site.
Who's behind the site?
So how did a relatively new blog that saw little to no Web traffic before last week suddenly receive those e-mails? Bloggers are wondering the same thing, suggesting that that the site was created by somebody in possession of the e-mails who wanted to shop them around.
However, the identity of the site's owner remains a mystery. Though the site posted the e-mails before the ABC News report, the site does not appear to be that news organization's original source.
ABC's Brian Ross told the Wall Street Journal that he "wasn't familiar" with the Web site before his online report Thursday about the e-mails. (According to Ross, it was only after his report was posted that he received transcripts of the more lurid instant message exchanges between Foley and pages.)
After Foley's e-mails were reported, others disclosed knowledge of them. Several news organizations, including the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald, had been made aware of the initial e-mails but chose not publish them.
Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Herald, told CNN that the paper had been tipped to the e-mails but did not run a story because their language, while "inappropriate," was also "ambiguous in what it actually meant or what a message might be."
The liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington also obtained the e-mails in July. It forwarded them directly to the FBI for investigation.
The owner of Stop Sex Predators responded to CNN inquires from an anonymous e-mail address posted on the Web site.
"My plans are to remain anonymous for the foreseeable future," the Web site's owner wrote in an e-mail. "I've been getting threats from folks and will no longer allow the posting of comments on the website. I can't believe the anger out there for exposing a hippocritical [sic] sex predator."
Other correspondence between Foley and pages came to light soon after ABC reported the e-mails. The instant messages contained explicit language, as opposed to the initially vague nature of the e-mails. Foley immediately resigned from Congress.
Foley apparently used the handle "Maf54" in his chat sessions, letters corresponding to his own initials. While a number of instant message transcripts between Foley and congressional pages going back to 2003 have surfaced, none of those pages have come forward.
Foley's attorney, David Roth, said Tuesday: "There was absolutely never any inappropriate sexual contact with any minor. [Foley] has acknowledged full responsibility for inappropriate e-mails and IMs."
Former pages look back
Because sites like MySpace.com and Facebook.com are popular with teenagers and college students, former congressional pages are going online to discuss the scandal and their memories of Foley.
On Facebook.com, used mainly by college students, a few students recalled feeling uncomfortable around Foley. Others said they were not surprised by the scandal. One former Foley page used his Facebook.com profile to say that he was "referring all media inquiries to the Clerk of the House."
Other online forums used by former pages were taken offline or made private to restrict access to them.
A Web forum run by the House Page Alumni Association was taken offline soon after the scandal broke. However, CNN identified archived versions of those Web pages in which Foley was discussed.
On the alumni site, one page in August 2004 wrote that Foley had "taken the time to find out who I was and then he actually remembered who I was a few months later!"
Another user of the message board posted in April 2005 that he had applied to be a page in Foley's office. In response, a former page simply wrote "eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee Foley."
However, the majority of former pages online are expressing dismay at the scandal and worry that it will tarnish the page program.
In the face of calls for more oversight of the program, a user group has been created on Facebook.com asking page alumni to e-mail their sponsor "and any other people you know up on the hill! ... Make it known that we should rid Congress of child predators, not the pages themselves!"
CNN's Abbi Tatton contributed to this report.
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