Facing sentencing, Hastert could be ordered to undergo sex offender exam

Chicago Tribune

When Dennis Hastert appears for his long-awaited sentencing hearing Wednesday, all eyes will be on whether the former U.S. House speaker is given prison time for paying hush money to cover up alleged sexual abuse from decades ago.

But there’s another aspect of Hastert’s possible punishment that has gone unnoticed.

Regardless of whether Hastert, 74, spends a day behind bars, court officials are recommending the former Republican leader undergo a sex offender evaluation that typically includes a series of tests designed to expose any undisclosed wrongdoing and gauge whether he’s a danger to society, recent court filings show. Federal prosecutors have said they also support the use of any “psychological and physiological” testing deemed necessary by the probation department.

Such tests can range from routine to 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 his reaction.

Hastert’s attorneys have objected to any testing, writing in a recent court filing that there is no basis to infer that the former speaker — who has not been found guilty of any sex crimes — is hiding any other abuse from his past or needs sex offender treatment.

Some critics say to put a man of Hastert’s age and health through such an ordeal would be excessive.

“The only thing they should be measuring is his blood pressure,” said Ralph Meczyk, a longtime criminal defense attorney in Chicago.


The prospect of having a man once second in line to the presidency submit to a sex offender evaluation will be argued before U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin, adding yet another facet to a sentencing hearing expected to draw news media from around the country to the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.

Hastert 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 longtime acquaintance — identified only as Individual A — to cover up unspecified misconduct from decades earlier when he was a wrestling coach and teacher at Yorkville High School.

In the run-up to the sentencing, federal prosecutors have accused the former speaker of sexually abusing at least five boys who were connected to the wrestling team. The last alleged incident occurred in 1979, two years before Hastert left his teaching position to run for his first political office.

Hastert’s plea agreement with prosecutors calls for a sentence of probation to no more than six months behind bars — the lowest range for anyone convicted of a felony in federal court. But the judge has made it clear he has the right under the law to sentence Hastert to up to five years in prison.


Among other expected highlights of Wednesday’s hearing:

•A man referred to in court papers as Individual D is expected to testify under oath that Hastert performed a sexual act on him in the school locker room when he was 17.

•Jolene Burdge, 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. He was equipment manager for the wrestling team.

•Hastert will be given a chance to speak before the judge hands down the sentence. He has apologized in court filings for the harm he has caused but never addressed the allegations of sexual misconduct at the core of the case.


The prospect of Hastert undergoing a sex offender evaluation was revealed last week in a defense filing that the judge ordered unsealed over the objections of Hastert’s attorneys. A probation official wrote in the six-page recommendation submitted to the court that while there was no evidence Hastert had committed any sexual misconduct since 1979, there was concern he may be concealing other wrongdoing in his past, according to the filing.

The probation report also speculated that Hastert’s international travel could have allowed him to “anonymously engage in sexual misconduct overseas,” according to the defense filing.

As a result of those factors, the probation department recommended Hastert submit to a lie detector test once he is placed on supervised release. Experts told the Tribune that Hastert would be hooked up to the polygraph machine and asked a series of questions to set a baseline. He would then be asked three or four questions about his sexual history that require only “yes” or “no” answers.

Dr. Steven Gaskell, a forensic psychologist who does “risk assessment” for sex offenders in court across Illinois, said the questions are general in nature and designed to quickly assess whether other victims exist.


“They could ask him, ‘Were there more than five victims? ... Did you sexually abuse anybody while you were the speaker of the House?’” Gaskell said. “They really could ask him anything, as long as it’s a yes or a no (answer).”

Hastert’s case is unusual, according to experts, and it is unclear what, if any, physiological tests he would undergo if a sexual offender evaluation is ordered. Among the tests commonly used in Illinois are the penile plethysmograph, also known as the PPG, and the Abel Assessment for Sexual Interest.

The PPG involves hooking up a man to a pressure-sensitive device to measure his reaction to various images. The Abel test gauges a subject’s visual reaction time to slides of people in various states of undress.

Neither Hastert being in his mid-70s nor his health being poor would preclude him from undergoing the PPG test, Gaskell said, adding that he’s seen men in their 80s given that exam.


According to Gaskell, the former speaker differs from the defendants with whom he generally deals. Most have multiple convictions for sex crimes and are being evaluated before they’re released from prison, he said, while others have been designated sexually violent by prosecutors who are seeking to have them held in custody as a danger to society well after their prison sentences expire.

“Hastert’s never even been arrested for (a sex crime),” Gaskell said.

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