Amid allegations, some consider removing Dennis Hastert’s presence
A portrait of Dennis Hastert hangs in a place of honor in the Capitol, alongside portraits of Henry Clay, Sam Rayburn, Carl Albert, Tip O’Neill, Newt Gingrich and other giants of Congress.
With Hastert accused of lying to the FBI over bank withdrawals he allegedly made to cover up past sexual misconduct, a group representing sexual abuse victims thinks the painting should be taken down.
That would be a first. House officials could not cite an instance in which a speaker’s portrait ever came down from its place in the Capitol.
But across Illinois, some organizations are not wasting any time in erasing the name of a onetime favorite son from positions of prominence.
Wheaton College, Hastert’s alma mater, removed his name from the Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government and Public Policy within days of his indictment. And it’s likely his name will be dropped from the Denny Hastert Yorkville Invitational, a popular wrestling club tournament in Illinois, said Chad Stevens, a coach and president of the Yorkville Wrestling Club executive board.
Hastert, 73, was a teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville for many years before entering politics. Law enforcement sources said the misconduct involved sexual abuse of a male student.
At his first court appearance Tuesday, Hastert pleaded not guilty to lying to the FBI and structuring cash withdrawals from banks to evade required reports. The money was part of $3.5 million he allegedly agreed to pay to an unnamed person to compensate for and conceal past misconduct, the indictment said.
The sister of a now-deceased wrestling team equipment manager has told the media that her brother was sexually abused through high school by Hastert. The woman said she talked to the FBI last month about Hastert. The brother died of AIDS in 1995.
After leaving Congress in 2007, Hastert stayed in town to work as a lobbyist. His Capitol portrait, unveiled in 2009, cost $35,000 in taxpayer money and is the work of Laurel Boeck, an artist from Westchester County, N.Y. It is lighted by a chandelier in the richly appointed Speaker’s Lobby, adjacent to the House chambers
A bronze plaque near the portrait reads: “Speakers of the House of Representatives of the United States. Chosen by the people. Honored by the preferment of their associates. These makers of history are memorialized as a tribute to their worth to the nation.”
The call for his portrait to come down came from Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a group founded in 1988 by Chicagoan Barbara Blaine. The group made its request to House Speaker John Boehner, whose own portrait someday will adorn the Speaker’s Lobby.
Boehner spokesman Michael Ricci declined to answer a question about SNAP’s request and referred a reporter to the speaker’s comments May 29. Boehner at that time said he was “shocked and dismayed” by the reports about Hastert. Asked about the portrait, Boehner said it is “important for us to have the facts before we make decisions.”
The framed painting, measuring about 5 feet by 3 1/2 feet, shows Hastert wearing a blue-and-orange striped tie, an homage to Wheaton College. It hangs between images of his predecessor, Gingrich, and the first speaker, Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg.
House officials said the Speaker Portrait Collection began with a 1852 donation of a portrait of Henry Clay, “The Great Compromiser” from Kentucky who served in the House and Senate for more than four decades in the 1800s.
More donations came later, and by 1910, the House mandated that it must acquire an oil painting of every speaker if an “acceptable” one was not already in hand. Hastert was the longest-serving Republican House speaker in history, holding the gavel from 1999 to 2007.
Before his election to Congress, Hastert served in the Illinois House. He was also due for a permanent presence there, but a proposal to spend a half-million dollars to erect a statue of him in the state Capitol in Springfield is on hold, at his request.
Most governmental bodies and organizations with something bearing Hastert’s name say they will see how the case ends before deciding what to do.
In downtown Yorkville, a plaque bearing Hastert’s likeness and a list of his accomplishments is in the Historic Courthouse. It was placed in 2012 and paid for by private donations. County Board Chairman John Shaw has said the plaque will stay for the time being.
The situation is the same for a sign near the Oswego Police Department on Route 34, which has a sign designating it as J. Dennis Hastert Park. The town named the park in his honor after he secured a $1.5 million Build Illinois public works grant for the city.
In the 1990s, the city built its new police station on the site but left the sign there. Village President Gail Johnson has said that village officials have yet to discuss if anything will be done with the sign.
Hastert is in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, whose executive director said no decision will be made about changing that until the former speaker has his day in court.
Three Fires Council of the Boy Scouts of America officials have not discussed whether Hastert will retain the Distinguished Citizen Award he received in 2000, a representative said Friday.
A classic car Hastert once owned — a dark green 1942 Lincoln Zephyr — is being removed from a Volo Auto Museum display at the Belvidere Oasis of Interstate 90 outside of Rockford.
“The action Volo is taking should not be construed as passing judgment on Hastert’s guilt or innocence in his pending federal criminal case,” museum Director Brian Grams said.
“The car did nothing wrong,” he added, “but we’re a family business and felt this was necessary.”
The Aurora Beacon-News’ Steve Lord and Denise Crosby contributed.
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