Sex abuse testimony OK’d for Dennis Hastert sentencing
Exactly 300 days after former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert was indicted on bombshell charges of paying hush money to cover up wrongdoing in his past, the words “sexual abuse” were finally uttered on the record.
It came Tuesday during an unannounced court hearing at which lawyers on both sides met with the judge to discuss a potential delay in Hastert’s upcoming sentencing to accommodate an alleged victim — identified only as Individual D — who had recently come forward.
Speaking in an otherwise empty courtroom, U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin said he didn’t want to “beat around the bush” in discussing Hastert’s alleged wrongdoing, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained Wednesday by the Tribune.
“If Individual D wants to come in and talk about being a victim of sexual abuse, he’s entitled to do so because that informs my decision about the history and characteristics of the defendant,” the transcript quoted Durkin as saying. “It’s that simple.”
The hearing marked the latest twist in a case that has been shrouded in mystery since the Republican powerhouse was charged May 28.
For the second time in a week, the judge held a hearing in the high-profile case without any public disclosure in advance. As a result, no reporters were present. It became known only after Durkin posted an order Wednesday announcing that Hastert’s sentencing had been postponed until April 27.
In pleading guilty to an illegal bank structuring charge in October, Hastert admitted he arranged with a person identified only as Individual A to pay a total of $3.5 million to cover up misconduct from decades ago while he was a high school wrestling coach and teacher in Yorkville. He also admitted lying to FBI agents when questioned in 2014 about suspicious bank withdrawals.
Though both the plea agreement and the original indictment 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 earlier.
No mention was made Tuesday of Individual A, who has never been publicly identified. Instead, prosecutors told the judge they had disclosed to Hastert’s lawyers two weeks ago that another alleged victim, Individual D, had come forward and was leaning toward testifying at Hastert’s sentencing hearing about abuse he had suffered. It was also revealed that the sister of another alleged victim plans to testify, according to the transcript.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Block said Individual D has had a difficult time deciding whether to go public about the alleged abuse.
“He’s not 100 percent certain he wants to do that, but he has been moving in that direction,” Block said, according to the transcript.
However, Individual D had a business trip scheduled on Hastert’s sentencing date of April 8 and had requested that the hearing be moved to accommodate him, prosecutors said.
While the identity of the sister was also not revealed in court, Jolene Burdge, who has said the FBI interviewed her last year about Hastert’s alleged sexual abuse of her brother, confirmed to the Tribune that she planned to give a statement at Hastert’s sentencing.
Burdge, of Billings, Mont., has said her brother, Stephen Reinboldt, who was a student at Yorkville High School and a manager of the wrestling team, told her before his death in 1995 of complications from AIDS that his first homosexual contact was with Hastert and that it lasted throughout his high school years.
“This has been a very long process of letting it go for me,” Burdge said Wednesday. “I don’t think at this point in my life you can get any justice. ... I wish (Hastert) had to come forward and name his victims and somehow pay restitution.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, Hastert’s lawyers objected to allowing either Individual D or Burdge to testify at sentencing, saying they didn’t qualify as victims under federal statute and should instead make only written submissions to the court.
Hastert’s lead attorney, Thomas Green, said the sister appeared to lack details of her brother’s alleged sexual abuse in interviews she gave to several media outlets after Hastert’s indictment last year. Any testimony she gave would be hearsay, Green said.
Green also said he should be allowed to subpoena records on Individual D’s reported psychological troubles due to the abuse so he could properly cross-examine him if he testified.
“I look upon (Individual) D as I would any other witness, that if he’s going to come and put his emotional well-being or physical well-being into issue, then I think there’s an implicit waiver of his privilege with any physician or mental health specialist,” said Green, who spoke via teleconference from his office in Washington.
Hastert’s attorneys, however, also acknowledged they didn’t plan to contest any facts alleged by Individual D. The judge said he would allow Green the chance to challenge anything he felt Burdge or Individual D said that was factually incorrect. But otherwise, Durkin said, “they’re absolutely entitled” to come in and tell their stories in court.
The testimony could prove crucial in determining whether Hastert gets 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.
Meanwhile, the former speaker’s recent health problems are expected to become a key part of his attorneys’ efforts to spare him prison. Earlier this year, his attorneys disclosed in court that Hastert had nearly died of a rare blood infection in November and was still recovering from a stroke, leading Durkin to cancel Hastert’s original sentencing date of Feb. 29.
Hastert, 74, was discharged from an undisclosed hospital Jan. 15 and was receiving home care and rehabilitation, including assistance walking, dressing, going to the bathroom and feeding himself, John Gallo, another Hastert lawyer, told the judge at the time.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Durkin said he had appointed a medical expert to review Hastert’s health records but that he didn’t want to identify the doctor yet.
“He is fast at work reviewing medical records so that I can get, to my satisfaction, an independent medical opinion as to the health of the defendant,” the transcript quoted the judge as saying.
Hastert’s lawyers gave no indication at the hearing of concern that Hastert was too ill to be sentenced. In fact, they cited his health in urging that the sentencing go ahead April 8.
But Durkin delayed the sentencing so Individual D could be present if he decides to testify.
The judge said he would set aside a full day for the sentencing.
Hastert admitted in his plea agreement he paid about $1.7 million in hush money to Individual A beginning in June 2010, first by making $50,000 bank withdrawals and giving the cash to Individual A at meetings that occurred about every six weeks.
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 21/2 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 2014, he lied by claiming 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.
Chicago Tribune’s Christy Gutowski contributed.
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