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World & Nation

Letters on behalf of Hastert must be made public for judge to consider them

Chicago Tribune

A federal judge has ordered that five dozen letters written on behalf of former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert be made public if the defense wants them to be considered at sentencing.

In the one-paragraph docket entry Thursday, U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin said Hastert’s attorneys had attached the 60 letters from “various individuals” to a report that is routinely filed under seal.

Durkin said there was no legal basis for the letters to remain hidden from public view, however, because Hastert’s lawyers are asking the judge to consider them as part of their plea for probation.

“If (Hastert) wants the court to consider any of these letters in mitigation or for any other purpose, the defendant must publicly file the letters,” Durkin said. “The court will not consider any letters addressed to the court unless they are publicly filed.”

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Hastert’s lawyers had not filed any letters on the public docket as of early Friday afternoon.

In recent weeks, the judge himself has made public almost 10 letters, emails and even a transcript of a telephone call that had been directed to him from people offering their advice on Hastert’s sentencing.

Once one of Illinois’ most popular and powerful politicians, Hastert has been abandoned by many of his friends and former colleagues since his bombshell indictment on hush-money charges in May 2015, his lawyers wrote in a recent court filing seeking probation.

“Mr. Hastert knows that the days of him being welcomed in the small towns he served all his life are gone forever,” the filing stated.

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Letters of support often play a key role in sentencings in federal court, and two cases in recent years in Chicago show their influence can be controversial.

In 2009, U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur caused a public uproar when he gave Chicago political powerbroker Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak probation in a multimillion-dollar real estate fraud case. Shadur cited the dozens of letters he received supporting the former alderman — including glowing notes from then-Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher and former Bear Terry “Tank” Johnson. The appellate court later reversed Shadur’s sentence, and another judge gave Vrdolyak 10 months in prison.

A similar scenario played out in 2014 when U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras gave probation to Ty Warner, the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies for skirting nearly $5.6 million in federal taxes by hiding a fortune in Swiss bank accounts. Kocoras had said he was swayed by 70 letters detailing Warner’s acts of kindness. Prosecutors appealed, but the sentence was upheld.

Hastert, 74, faces probation up to five years in prison when he is sentenced April 27, although his plea agreement with prosecutors calls for a sentence of no more than six months behind bars. He pleaded guilty in October to one count of illegally structuring bank withdrawals to avoid reporting requirements, admitting in a plea agreement that he’d paid $1.7 million in cash to a person identified only as Individual A to cover up unspecified misconduct from decades earlier.

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In a 26-page filing last week, prosecutors alleged Hastert sexually abused five students when he was a teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville High School. The abuse allegedly occurred in hotel rooms during team trips and in empty locker rooms, often after Hastert coaxed the teens into a compromising position by offering to massage them.

Prosecutors alleged that Hastert performed a sex act on two wrestlers at separate times and inappropriately touched two other wrestlers once each while giving them massages. The filing also alleged that Hastert set up a recliner chair outside the locker room showers in order to sit and watch the boys.

Federal prosecutors have confirmed that another alleged Hastert victim, identified as Individual D, will testify under oath at the sentencing hearing.

Jolene Burdge, the sister of another alleged victim, Stephen Reinboldt, is also expected to tell the court how her now-deceased brother had told her Hastert had sexually abused him throughout high school, prosecutors said. He was equipment manager for the wrestling team.

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In asking for probation, Hastert’s attorneys have said the former speaker was “profoundly sorry” for harming others and that he had chosen a career path designed to make a difference in the lives of youths. They said his accomplishments and lack of a previous criminal history should be considered when it comes to deciding how he should be punished.

Hastert’s attorneys also cited his recent health issues — including a near-fatal blood infection and minor stroke that left him hospitalized for weeks — in seeking mercy.

jmeisner@tribpub.com

Twitter @jmetr22b

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