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Ex-House Speaker Hastert’s alleged lie will factor into sentencing, judge says

The judge's assessment of the claim that former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert lied to federal prosecutors signaled that Hastert's bid to avoid prison could be on shaky ground, legal experts said.
The judge’s assessment of the claim that former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert lied to federal prosecutors signaled that Hastert’s bid to avoid prison could be on shaky ground, legal experts said.
(Christian K. Lee / Associated Press)

Federal prosecutors say former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert lied to them last year, telling them that a former student wrestler was trying to extort money from him by making false allegations of sexual abuse decades ago.

Prosecutors contend that the abuse allegations are true, but have agreed not to use Hastert’s alleged lie to seek a harsher penalty at his sentencing April 27 in a financial violation case they say is related to those allegations.

On Wednesday, however, the federal judge overseeing the case made it clear that the claim that Hastert tried to blame a man he allegedly abused would be a crucial part of his decision on whether the 11-term Illinois congressman should go to prison and for how long.

“That’s not conduct that’s 40 years old. That’s conduct that’s less than a year old,” U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin told lawyers. “Among the aggravating factors in this case, that’s a big one.”

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Legal experts said the judge’s remarks signaled that Hastert’s bid to avoid prison could be on shaky ground.

“I think he was telegraphing directly that this is something on his mind, and it’s something that would put upward pressure on whatever the sentence is,” former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins said.

In a 26-page filing last week, prosecutors alleged Hastert sexually abused five students when he was a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville, Ill., about 50 miles west of Chicago. The abuse allegedly occurred in hotel rooms during team trips and in empty locker rooms, often after Hastert coaxed the teens into compromising positions by offering to massage them.

Hastert, 74, faces anywhere from probation to five years in prison, although his plea agreement calls for a sentence of no more than six months behind bars.

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He pleaded guilty in October to one count of illegally structuring bank withdrawals to avoid reporting requirements, admitting in a plea agreement that he paid $1.7 million in cash to one of his former wrestlers, identified only as Individual A, to cover up unspecified misconduct from decades earlier.

Prosecutors have noted that Hastert cannot be tried for sex abuse crimes because the statute of limitations has expired.

The judge’s comments were just one of several intriguing developments in Hastert’s case:

•A filing unsealed over objections from Hastert’s lawyers showed they have questioned whether touching the groin of Individual A during a massage in a motel room four decades ago amounted to sexual abuse.

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•Hastert claimed to have no recollection of sexually abusing another young wrestler, referred to as Individual D, who is scheduled to testify about the incident at Hastert’s upcoming sentencing.

•A lawyer for Individual A threatened in a January letter to sue Hastert if he didn’t pay the remaining $1.8 million he allegedly owed in hush money, plus interest. Hastert allegedly agreed to pay Individual A $3.5 million to keep quiet about the misconduct decades earlier.

•According to the unsealed defense filing, a probation report not made public recommended Hastert undergo a sex offender assessment, including submitting to a lie-detector test to reveal any “recent misconduct.” The report also suggests Hastert’s international travel allowed him to “anonymously engage in sexual misconduct overseas,” according to a filing by the defense, which objected to that portion of the report.

Federal prosecutors confirmed that Individual D, who told authorities that Hastert performed a sexual act on him in the school locker room when he was 17, will testify under oath at the sentencing hearing.

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The sister of a third alleged victim is also expected to tell the court how her deceased brother had told her Hastert sexually abused him throughout high school, prosecutors said. He was equipment manager for the wrestling team.

John Gallo, Hastert’s Chicago-based attorney, said the defense did not intend to call any witnesses at sentencing.

In asking for probation, Hastert’s attorneys have said the former speaker was “profoundly sorry” for harming others and that he had chosen a career path designed to make a positive difference in the lives of youths. They said his accomplishments and lack of a previous criminal history should be considered when it comes to deciding how he should be punished. Numerous letters of support have been submitted to the judge but not made public.

They’ve also cited his recent health issues — including a near-fatal blood infection and minor stroke that left him hospitalized for weeks.

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Collins said the dynamic of Hastert’s sentencing hearing is unusual because defense lawyers are typically eager to talk about a defendant’s past to counterbalance the charges. In Hastert’s case, his past is “a double-edged sword,” Collins said.

“The more this becomes a referendum on Dennis Hastert the man and his life story, the more challenging a probation sentence probably becomes,” he said.

jmeisner@tribpub.com

Meisner writes for the Chicago Tribune. Tribune staff writer Christy Gutowski contributed to this report.

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Hastert paid to hide sex abuse, then lied about it, federal filing alleges

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert abused four teenagers, prosecutors say

Former House Speaker Hastert’s lawyers say he doesn’t recall incident of alleged sex abuse

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