Dennis Hastert goes from speaker to felon, but his dark past still a mystery
State Rep. Dennis Hastert savors his Congressional victory at his campaign office in the Baker Hotel in St. Charles, Ill. on Nov. 5, 1986.(Don Casper / Chicago Tribune)
Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert leaves after his guilty plea at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago on Oct. 28, 2015.(Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)
(Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune)
(Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)
(Terrence A. James, Chicago Tribune)
Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, second from right, is led by Sidley Austin attorney John Gallo as they make their way through the media gathering at Chicago’s Dirksen U.S. Courthouse on June 9, 2015. Hastert was in court for his arraignment on charges he evaded bank regulations and lied to the FBI.(Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)
Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert makes his way from his Plano home to a limousine waiting in his driveway June 9, 2015. Hastert was due in federal court later in the day, accused of evading bank regulations and lying to the FBI.(Warren Skalski, for the Chicago Tribune)
U.S. Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., announces his retirement to reporters and supporters Aug. 17, 2007, in Yorkville.(Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune)
Former Gov. Jim Edgar, left, and former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert greet people during an Illinois Business Immigration Coalition event April 22, 2014, in Chicago.(Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune)
Cardinal Francis George, left, and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert talk after each spoke about the need for immigration reform during a conference at DePaul University on Feb., 4, 2014.(Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune)
Former U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert takes part in a panel discussion at Wheaton College on Oct. 30, 2012.(Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune)
Former U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert at a panel discussion at Wheaton College on Oct. 30, 2012.(Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune)
Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, right, and Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, notice that Hastert is wearing the same tie as in his portrait during the painting’s official unveiling at the U.S. Captiol on July 28, 2009, in Washington.(Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich talk with reporters after a meeting with legislative leaders to discuss the budget July 31, 2008, in Chicago.(Alex Garcia, Chicago Tribune)
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Northern Illinois University Chairwoman Cherilyn Murer and Dr. Allan Thornton, Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute medical adviser, talk at a groundbreaking for the Northern Illinois Proton Treatment and Research Center at the DuPage National Technology Park on June 19, 2008, in West Chicago.(Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune)
Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert enjoys his visit March 5, 2008, to the Illinois House at the state Capitol in Springfield. Hastert was being honored by Illinois lawmakers for his many years of legislative service.(Seth Perlman, AP)
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert walks through Statuary Hall on his way to the House floor to make his farewell address to Congress on Nov. 15, 2007, in Washington(Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)
House Speaker Dennis Hastert thanks supporter Sondra Hecox of St. Charles on election night Nov. 7, 2006, at the Baker Hotel in St. Charles.(Bonnie Trafelet, Chicago Tribune)
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, left, introduces the new House Majority Leader, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, center, after he defeated Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., right, on Feb. 2, 2006. Blunt had assumed the position on an interim basis after Rep. Tom DeLay stepped down following his indictment.(Pete Souza, Chicago Tribune)
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, right, listens to interim House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., on Sept. 28, 2005, after House Majority Leader Tom DeLay stepped down from his leadership position following his indictment.(Pete Souza, Chicago Tribune)
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, left, greets former Illinois Gov.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 18, 2005.(Pete Souza, Chicago Tribune)
Warrenville Mayor Vivian M. Lund and U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert talk March 23, 2005, after a ceremonial signing of an agreement with the Kerr-McGee chemical company for the removal of radioactive pollutants in Kress Creek and the west branch of the DuPage River.(John Dziekan, Chicago Tribune)
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert walks through the U.S. Capitol building, August 4, 2004 in Washington D.C. flanked by security and members of his staff. Hastert had held the position of Speaker for 6 years and recently wrote a book detailing his life and career.(Steven Rosenberg / Chicago Tribune)
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert in his office at the U.S. Capitol on August 4, 2004.(Steven Rosenberg / Chicago Tribune)
U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, left, Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Minority Leader
U.S. Rep. Dennis Hastert waves as he is introduced as speaker of the House by Rep.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert signs Dana Balicki’s boxing robe during a celebration of the expansion of the Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora on Aug. 27, 2002.(Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune)
House Speaker Dennis Hastert awaits a television interview on election night in Aurora on Nov. 6, 2002.(E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune)
House Speaker Dennis Hastert signs an autograph for Kate Stjefbold, 9, at Sandwich Fairground in Sandwich on July 19, 2002.(Michael Walker, for the Chicago Tribune)
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, left, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert hold up sample tax cut checks during a Republican rally at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 2, 2001, to celebrate all they’ve accomplished during the congressional session.(Pete Souza, Chicago Tribune)
President George W. Bush, right, chats with Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert during a Congressional Medal of Honor ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on July 26, 2001.(Pete Souza, Chicago Tribune)
President George W. Bush shakes hands with Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, right, after addressing a joint session of Congress and a national television audience at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 28, 2001. Vice President Dick Cheney, center, applauds Bush.(Pete Souza, Chicago Tribune)
U. S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert holds a news conference Feb. 12, 2001, on the driveway of his home in Yorkville to let the media know that he is fine after surgery the night before to alleviate discomfort from kidney stones.(Mario Petitti, Chicago Tribune)
Senate Majority Leader
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert speeds off Sept. 22, 1999, while driving a minicar in the third annual “Capitol Hill Challenge,” for the Kmart Kids Race Against Drugs.(Pete Souza, Chicago Tribune)
House Speaker Dennis Hastert greets supporters on election night, Nov. 7, 2000, in Aurora.(Stephanie Sinclair, Chicago Tribune)
House Speaker Dennis Hastert is prepped for a CBS news show on election night, Nov. 7, 2000, in Aurora.(Stephanie Sinclair, Chicago Tribune)
U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert watches as fishing instructor Owen Owens tries to untangle his line from a tree during an early-morning fishing trip to Valley Forge State Park in Pennsylvania on July 31, 2000.(Stephanie Sinclair, Chicago Tribune)
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, left, speaks during a City Hall news conference as U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert whispers to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, right. The news conference in 1999 announced the partial federal funding of the reconstruction of Chicago’s Lower Wacker Drive and completion of the Stevenson Expressway repairs.(Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)
U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, right, and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, center, applaud as third-grader Kiara Hastings, left, finishes her introductory speech during the congressmen’s visit to the Arna Bontemps Public School in the Englewood neighborhood June 1, 1999.(John Lee, Chicago Tribune)
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert poses for a photo with eighth-grade American history students after speaking to them at Batavia Middle School on May 10, 1999.(Mario Petitti, Chicago Tribune)
(Pete Souza, Chicago Tribune)
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert poses with a couple who recognized him as he departed the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 17, 1999, in Washington. A plainclothes Capitol police officer stands guard as Hastert aide Sam Lancaster takes the picture.(Pete Souza, Chicago Tribune)
Dennis Hastert appears at a Yorkville radio station in 1999.(Candice C. Cusic, Chicago Tribune)
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert gets his hair cut by Chuck Wolfe, owner of Chuck’s in Yorkville, on Feb. 16, 1999.(Candice C. Cusic, Chicago Tribune)
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert pays the check at the Cozy Corner Family Restaurant in Yorkville on Feb. 16, 1999.(Candice C. Cusic, Chicago Tribune)
Jean Hastert sits with her husband, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and family friend Bob Williams inside the Cozy Corner Family Restaurant in Yorkville on Feb. 16, 1999.(Candice C. Cusic, Chicago Tribune)
Vice President Al Gore, left, and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert applaud President Bill Clinton before his State of the Union address Jan. 19, 1999, in Washington, D.C.(Pete Souza, Chicago Tribune)
Newly elected U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, right, and Mayor
Dennis Hastert, new Speaker of the House, is congratulated by Democratic Minority Leader Dick Gephardt on Jan. 6, 1999.(Pete Souza, Chicago Tribune)
Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., with his wife, Jean, at his side, speaks at a news conference Jan. 5, 1999, in Washington.(Pete Souza, Chicago Tribune)
State Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Yorkville, speaks about a public utilities bill June 21, 1985, in Springfield.(John W. Cary, UPI)
State Reps. Dennis Hastert and Jane Barnes speak in 1983 on the bipartisan Illinois Legislative Investigating Commission at the State of Illinois Building in Chicago. The group studied child abuse. Rep. Aaron Jaffe, D-Skokie, and Hastert, R-Oswego, co-chaired the group.(Val Mazzenga, Chicago Tribune)
State Rep. Dennis Hastert campaigns for Congress in 1986 in Aurora.(David Butow, Chicago Tribune)
State Rep. Dennis Hastert, 39th District.(Chicago Tribune historical photo)
Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert in a photo from a 1973 Yorkville High School yearbook when he was the school’s wrestling coach.(Handout)
Dennis Hastert in a photo in the 1966 Yorkville High School yearbook, the first year he taught at the school.(Handout)
It was nearly 17 years ago that Dennis Hastert raised his right hand in the U.S. Capitol and was sworn in as the speaker of the House.
On Wednesday, a grim-faced Hastert took an oath of a different kind, swearing in a federal courtroom in Chicago to tell the truth as he pleaded guilty to a felony count of illegally structuring cash withdrawals to evade bank currency-reporting requirements.
“Guilty, sir,” Hastert, 73, said in a hoarse voice as he leaned toward a microphone and acknowledged in the packed courtroom that he had made hush-money payments to cover up wrongdoing in his past.
The guilty plea marked a dramatic downfall for Hastert, one of Illinois’ most powerful Republicans who rose from humble beginnings as a small-town high school teacher to the third-highest elected office in the country.
The 20-minute hearing, however, left more questions than answers. His plea agreement provided no new details on the sensational allegations underlying the charges; in fact, it used almost identical language as the indictment. Still a mystery is the identity of the person Hastert had agreed to pay $3.5 million to keep quiet as well as the nature of the wrongdoing Hastert was trying to cover up.
Though both the indictment and plea agreement only hint at the alleged wrongdoing, federal law enforcement sources have told the Tribune that Hastert was paying to cover up the sexual abuse of a student from decades ago when Hastert was a wrestling coach and teacher at Yorkville High School.
While Hastert is now a convicted felon, he may not do any prison time. His plea agreement with prosecutors recommends a sentence ranging from probation to up to six months behind bars — the lowest possible sentence under federal guidelines for anyone convicted of a felony.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin, who set sentencing for Feb. 29, noted he is free to hand out a term of up to five years in prison, the maximum by law. But such a move would be unusual.
In an emailed statement after the hearing, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon hinted that more details about Hastert’s wrongdoing could come out at sentencing. Prosecutors intend to “provide the court with relevant information about (Hastert’s) background and the charged offenses” so the judge “can impose an appropriate sentence taking into account all relevant factors in the case,” Fardon said.
But anyone who is hoping prosecutors reveal all the allegedly sordid details at sentencing will likely be disappointed, former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter told the Tribune. He said the fact that the feds agreed to such a lenient sentencing range — which Cotter called “extremely rare” — indicates they think even probation would be an appropriate sentence for Hastert.
“Why would prosecutors agree to the lowest range possible and then decide they’re going to come out and ruin your life and reputation and other’s people’s lives to try to get every minute of six months?” said Cotter, now a white-collar defense attorney at Greensfelder, Hemker and Gale PC.
Dressed in a gray suit and blue-and-gray striped tie, the white-haired Hastert made only his second appearance at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse since the shocking charges were announced in May. Entering the courthouse about 7:15 a.m., he walked with a stooped posture past a horde of news cameras and reporters staked out in the lobby and outside on Dearborn Street.
As he waited for the hearing to begin in Durkin’s 14th-floor courtroom, Hastert sat quietly at the defense table, occasionally whispering with his attorneys and pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. When the judge called the case, Hastert moved to the lectern and raised his right hand to be sworn in.
When asked if he swore to tell the truth, Hastert answered, “I do,” in a voice so quiet the judge reminded him to speak up.
Hastert admitted in his plea agreement that he arranged with the person identified as Individual A in 2010 to pay a total of $3.5 million to cover up past misconduct from his days as a wrestling coach and teacher in far west suburban Yorkville.
For about two years beginning in June 2010, Hastert made 15 withdrawals of $50,000 apiece, giving the cash to Individual A at meetings that occurred about every six weeks, according to the plea agreement.
But after bank officials warned Hastert in April 2012 that such large withdrawals had to be reported to financial regulators, he began illegally structuring the transactions in increments of less than $10,000 to avoid federal reporting requirements, according to the plea agreement. Over the next 2 1/2 years, Hastert made a total of 106 withdrawals in increments of less than $10,000, totaling $952,000.
When FBI agents questioned Hastert about the withdrawals at his Plano home in December, he lied by claiming that he was keeping the cash he had been withdrawing “in a safe place,” the plea agreement stated.
The indictment said Hastert told agents he was wary of the banking system.
During the hearing Wednesday, Hastert kept his eyes on the lectern and stood still as Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Block read the facts of the plea agreement into the record. Afterward, the judge asked Hastert to explain in his own words what he did wrong.
“I didn’t want them to know how I intended to spend the money,” Hastert said of bank officials. “I withdrew the money in less than $10,000 increments.”
Hastert, flanked by his attorneys and courthouse security, left the courthouse without comment after the hearing. As Hastert was entering a black Chevrolet SUV, a reporter shouted out, “Do you have anything to say to the public?”
Hastert did not respond.
The longest-serving Republican House speaker in history, Hastert was elected to the U.S. House in 1986 after serving three terms in the Illinois legislature. He was dogged by scandal near the end of his term as speaker over the response of Republican leadership to improper advances toward underage male pages by then-Rep. Mark Foley of Florida.
Controversy also followed Hastert after he left the speaker’s office in 2007. In 2012, a Tribune investigation found that the former legislator had conducted private business ventures through a little-known, taxpayer-financed office. He’s also been sued in federal court by a former business partner who alleged Hastert misused government funds.
The allegations hinting at Hastert’s past sexual transgressions led to a frenzied attempt by the media to track down Individual A. The day after the charges were announced, law enforcement sources told the Tribune that a second victim who raised similar allegations against Hastert had been interviewed by the FBI.
In June, a onetime Yorkville resident took to national television to say Hastert abused her now-deceased brother while he was a student. Jolene Burdge, now of Montana, told ABC News her brother, Stephen Reinboldt, an equipment manager for the wrestling team, was abused by Hastert for years before he graduated in 1971.
But none of those allegations was included in the carefully worded plea agreement in which Hastert admitted to a structuring count that’s typically brought against drug traffickers or others looking to launder large amounts of ill-gotten gains. In Hastert’s case, some could even take the view that Hastert was a victim of extortion, according to Cotter.
“According to the plea agreement, Individual A approached Hastert years ago and either demanded or agreed to accept millions of dollars for his silence,” Cotter said. “It might be argued there is victimization on both sides. ... That may not be a defense against the crime, but it’s powerful mitigation.”
Jeffrey Cramer, another former federal prosecutor now at the security firm Kroll, said Hastert’s attorneys have a somewhat “careful dance” to perform at sentencing, making sure the judge considers Hastert’s long record of public service and other good deeds without prompting prosecutors to “complete the picture” with details of his wrongdoing.
“If they go too much to that well, don’t expect prosecutors to just sit there and smile,” Cramer said.
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