Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert will plead guilty to resolve charges that he lied to the FBI about financial crimes, associated with an alleged hush money scandal stemming from “improprieties” committed decades ago.
Lawyers for both sides said in Federal Court Thursday they have reached an agreement, and that the former House leader will enter a guilty plea October 28. A plea deal would avert a trial and help keep any embarrassing secrets quiet, but would also allow prosecutors to claim victory.
“Hastert was motivated to reach a settlement because he was concerned about potentially embarrassing facts coming out,” says John Marshall law professor Hugh Mundy. “The government has a motive to settle because it a certainty that a guilty verdict will be returned.”
Hastert’s indictment last May alleged the 73-year-old agreed to pay $3.5 million to an "Individual A" to hide unspecified past wrongdoing. The Associated Press and other media, citing anonymous sources, have reported that the payments were meant to conceal claims of sexual misconduct.
Hastert allegedly structured cash withdrawals in increments of just under $10,000 to avoid financial reporting rules and then lied to the FBI about the reason for the withdrawals. Investigators have said Hastert withdrew about $1.7 million.
At trial, prosecutors would likely have wanted to provide jurors with at least some background about the misconduct. They could even have even called "Individual A" as a witness.
“In all likelihood it would be part of the evidence,” observed Chicago defense attorney Richard Kling. But he noted that Hastert’s alleged behavior took place before and after his time in office.
“The case that he’s charged with has nothing to do with politics,” Kling said. “It has to do with somebody paying money to keep somebody quiet about something that happened decades ago.”
Word of the Hastert plea deal echoed through the nation’s capital Thursday, where the former speaker was once the third most powerful person in the United States.
“It seems like the misconduct that he engaged in was pretty egregious and jail time would be pretty appropriate,” said Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “I think it would be profoundly disturbing if he walks away.”
Still, Bookbinder agreed that Hastert’s alleged financial crimes may be viewed as relatively minor by the court, and the conduct in question might have been hard to prove.”
“It doesn’t look like he’s getting special treatment,” he said. “It looks like the government is getting the toughest kind of deal they could get.”
During a July hearing, Hastert’s attorney Thomas Green said media reports about Hastert's alleged past sexual misconduct were the "800-pound gorilla" in the case. He said he was not sure how or whether to address those allegations, including in any pretrial motions.
At the same hearing, U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin warned he might be obligated to reveal potentially sensitive details in his rulings if the defense raised those issues in filings before a trial.
Even as the news reverberated through Washington Thursday, it was the talk of the town in suburban Yorkville where the alleged student improprieties took place.
“He set the foundation for my career,” said former wrestler Gary Matlock, who first met Hastert as a high school freshman in 1969. “I’m disappointed and surprised right now, but he will always be a friend.”