Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert was released this week from a federal prison in Minnesota after serving nearly 13 months for violating banking regulations to cover up the sexual abuse of teenage boys.
But while Hastert tasted freedom, the fallout from the bombshell case is far from over.
Hastert, 75, once second in line for the presidency, leaves prison with his reputation in tatters. He lost his job as a high-powered lobbyist, his portrait was removed from the U.S. Capitol, he’s in declining health and he faces two lawsuits filed by alleged victims.
Once his sentence expires Aug. 16, he also must serve two years of court-ordered supervised release that will include restricted travel, random drug screenings and constant checkups from a probation officer.
And because Hastert admitted he sexually abused boys when he was a wrestling coach decades ago, the onetime Republican powerhouse has been ordered by a judge to take part in a sex-offender treatment program, including any “psychological and physiological testing” recommended by his probation officer.
Such evaluations can be rigorous and invasive. One measure that’s been suggested for Hastert by a probation official is a polygraph exam to determine whether he’s lying about how many people he’s victimized and whether any abuse has occurred recently, court records show.
Other tests involve showing a defendant various images and measuring any sexual arousal.
Hastert originally reported to the Federal Medical Center in Rochester on June 22, 2016 — one year after his explosive indictment surrounding secret hush-money payments sparked his epic downfall.
Hastert served his prison sentence in the Minnesota medical facility because of severe health complications he suffered shortly after pleading guilty in October 2015. His defense team said a blood infection nearly took his life. He also suffered a minor stroke.
After nearly 13 months in custody, Hastert was transferred Monday to a residential halfway house on Chicago’s West Side in anticipation of his upcoming release date, the Bureau of Prisons said in a statement.
Prison officials declined to provide further details, including whether Hastert will be allowed to serve out the remaining month of his sentence on home confinement — similar to an arrangement made for former Gov. George Ryan when he was released from prison in 2013.
Hastert’s low-key release came in stark contrast to the day he reported to prison, when cameras captured images of the former speaker, in a wheelchair and dressed in a black shirt and camouflage pants, pushing his way past a fence topped with razor wire.
There was virtually no activity at Hastert’s Plano home Tuesday morning, and his criminal defense attorneys, through a spokeswoman with the Sidley Austin law firm, declined to comment on his whereabouts.
Jolene Burdge, a Montana woman whose now-deceased brother was molested by Hastert when he was a student at Yorkville High School, said she was caught a bit by surprise when the Tribune notified her Tuesday of Hastert’s release from prison, even though she knew the date was near.
“I feel as much justice has been done that the law will allow,” Burdge said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “Was it enough? I don’t think so. But from my viewpoint after 20 or 30 years of knowing what he had done to my brother, I never thought he would ever get caught. So, I’m OK with this. … It’s a pretty big fall from grace.”
In rejecting Hastert’s plea for probation while sentencing him to 15 months in prison, U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin called the former GOP stalwart a “serial child molester” and forced him to admit in open court that he abused several male students before he entered politics when he was a Yorkville High School coach.
“What I did was wrong, and I regret it,” Hastert said at the sentencing in April 2016. "(The students) looked to me, and I took advantage of them.”
In addition to the supervised release and sex offender evaluation, Durkin barred Hastert from initiating contact with any of his victims.
Shortly before he reported to prison, Hastert paid a $250,000 fine that went to a fund benefiting sexual assault victims, records show.
Federal prosecutors began to build a case against Hastert after a Yorkville bank noticed him making suspicious withdrawals. Hastert’s federal indictment was made public in May 2015 and later led to the public revelation that he had sexually abused teenage boys.
Hastert did not face sex-related charges because prosecutors said the statute of limitations had long expired. He instead admitted to committing a financial crime — withdrawing more than $950,000 from banks in a way that would avoid detection, all in an effort to keep a victim quiet.
The investigation into Hastert’s suspicious bank withdrawals took a bizarre turn when FBI agents confronted Hastert at his home in December 2014. He first told them he was trying to keep his money safe, but his attorney later alleged Hastert was a victim of a $3.5 million extortion plot.
Hastert claimed that a former Yorkville standout wrestler — identified in court records only as Individual A — had falsely accused him of sexual abuse decades ago when he was a coach. At the request of authorities, Hastert secretly recorded two calls to Individual A to catch him making threats. But agents soon realized it was Hastert who was lying.
Agents then questioned Individual A, who told them Hastert touched him when he was a child in a motel room on a wrestling trip. At least four other students involved in the wrestling program alleged at some point that Hastert sexually abused them in the 1960s and 1970s.
Following his indictment in May 2015, authorities would not acknowledge the motive behind the hush-money payments. Chicago Tribune reporters spent several months contacting scores of former wrestlers and students and filing two dozen open-records requests in an effort to uncover the truth.
Tribune reporters learned the identity of Individual A in early 2016. He has repeatedly declined to comment, but his wife acknowledged her husband is a victim. He has since sued Hastert in a Kendall County breach-of-contract lawsuit seeking the remaining $1.8 million — plus accrued interest — he argues Hastert still owes him. The civil case is due back in court next month, and a second accuser more recently filed suit as well.
Attorney Kristi Browne, who represents Individual A and the other alleged victim in the lawsuits, has previously said she hoped to take Hastert’s sworn deposition after his release.
“We will now move forward in these cases to the discovery phase, which is the next step towards holding Mr. Hastert accountable and securing justice for our clients,” Browne said in an emailed statement Tuesday.
Another of the victims uncovered during the Tribune’s 2016 investigation was Scott Cross, a brother of former Illinois House GOP leader Tom Cross.
Scott Cross told the Tribune he was victimized in fall 1979 when he was wrestling captain. Cross asked the Tribune to keep his identity confidential until he spoke out publicly. The Tribune honored his wishes until he publicly appeared in court at the sentencing hearing and confronted his former coach while delivering an emotional statement.
In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Cross said he felt that Hastert got away with “a slap on the wrist.”
“He was charged with a financial crime, not what he had actually done to myself and others back in the ‘70s,” Cross said. “It was troubling to hear of the early release, but there was nothing I could do about that. I’m just trying to move on.”
Burdge, meanwhile, said that her brother, Stephen Reinboldt, confided in her long before his 1995 death at 42 of AIDS that Hastert had sexual contact with him in high school. Reinboldt, who graduated in 1971, was an equipment manager for the high school’s wrestling and football teams.
In her remarks at Hastert’s sentencing, Burdge talked about how her brother’s life deteriorated after the abuse, the trauma leading him “down a path of high-risk, reckless behavior that ultimately cost him his life.”
“You took his life, Mr. Hastert, not because he died of AIDS, but because you took his innocence and turned it against him,” she said at the sentencing. “He was too young and vulnerable to understand that.”
Beacon-News’ Steve Lord contributed.