Hastert, the accidental House speaker, faces own scandal after noted career
Federal prosecutors have announced bank-related charges against former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert. (AP)
He was the longest-serving Republican House speaker in U.S. history, and proud of how far he’d come from his days as a small-town high school teacher and wrestling coach.
“Coach,” in fact, was a nickname that stuck.
So news Thursday that Dennis Hastert faces a federal indictment was a shock to many. As House speaker from 1999 to 2007, the husky, gray-thatched Illinoisan was just two heartbeats away from the presidency. At 73, he has been in recent years working mostly behind the scenes as a Washington power broker.
Now, he stands accused of agreeing to pay $3.5 million in apparent hush money to a longtime acquaintance for unspecified “misconduct” years earlier. His withdrawals from banks caught the attention of authorities, and Hastert then lied to the FBI when asked about what he was doing with the money, according to the indictment.
On Thursday, one former aide was practically speechless when asked about the indictment. He said he had last seen his old boss a year ago, and at that time he seemed “like the old Denny, but happier, not being in politics anymore.”
Hastert represented Illinois in the Congress for nearly 21 years before stepping down in November 2007.
His climb to the top was improbable. It was a sex scandal that made him House speaker.
He was dubbed the “Accidental Speaker,” plucked from a junior position in the GOP leadership in December 1998 during the chaotic moments after newly nominated Republican Speaker Bob Livingston of Louisiana disclosed an extramarital affair and turned down the post.
Hastert’s pragmatism with colleagues won him the post. As speaker, he dealt with the passage of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts and the expansion of Medicare to include prescription drugs. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, during 90 days of almost nonstop work, he oversaw efforts to get money to New York and negotiate the Patriot Act.
After Democrats assumed the majority in the 2006 midterm elections, the Republican from Plano lost the trappings of the speaker’s post, a grandiose office, plane service to and from Washington and a security detail.
But Hastert told the Tribune that returning to the life of a simple congressman was personally rewarding as he renewed friendships with other rank-and-file members in a way that hadn’t been possible when he was speaker and lawmakers were looking to him for favors.
“When you are speaker, you’re almost a prisoner in that office,” Hastert said. “You really didn’t go out of your office because they had 26 people asking you for something without an appointment, just trying to grab you. You were vulnerable (to a request) every time you walked out.”
Hastert was born in Aurora on Jan. 2, 1942. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in 1964 and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University in 1967. He served in the Illinois State Legislature from 1980 to 1986 before winning a congressional seat in 1986.
At the height of his power in 2004 he put out a memoir, “Speaker: Lessons from 40 Years in Coaching and Politics.”
Six months after Hastert left Congress, a Washington-based law and lobbying firm, Dickstein Shapiro, announced he was joining its team as a senior adviser, though he had to wait to become a lobbyist because of a federally mandated cooling-off period. Hastert’s foreign clients included the government of Luxembourg, where his ancestors lived, and the Republic of Turkey, according to public records.
Wheaton College established the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government and Public Policy after he left Congress. He hit the lecture circuit, asking $25,000 for a speech. His speaker’s bureau noted he “requires first-class airfare, hotel, car service and expenses for two.”
He enjoyed other perks too.
Former speakers are given taxpayer-funded offices after they leave the Congress for up to five years, with a sizable budget to wind down their congressional business. Hastert kept an office in far west suburban Yorkville for the full five years, spending nearly $1.9 million before it closed late in 2012. A Tribune investigation that year found Hastert conducted private business ventures from that space, which ran afoul of the rules.
The office, near the Kendall County Courthouse, contained framed photos of Hastert and then-President George W. Bush, autographed speaker’s gavels and other memorabilia. A bust of Abraham Lincoln was in Hastert’s personal quarters, plus a Bible.
A Tribune review in 2012 found Hastert’s three government pensions — from teaching, the state legislature and the Congress — totaled about $106,000 a year.
On Thursday, there were signs that Hastert’s world has been turned upside down. A spokesman for the CME Group confirmed that Hastert had resigned from the board of directors of the Chicago-based futures market operator. Hastert also resigned his position as co-leader of Dickstein Shapiro’s Public Policy and Political Law practice, a spokesman for the lobbying firm confirmed late Thursday.
It also emerged that the Illinois House put on hold a proposal to spend $500,000 to put a statue in the state Capitol honoring Hastert. He declined the offer about a month ago, a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan said.
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