A deadline for Dennis Hastert's legal team to file pretrial paperwork passed with nothing new submitted to the court, suggesting the former House speaker could be close to a plea deal that would avert a trial and keep potentially embarrassing details secret, legal experts said Wednesday.
Prosecutors and attorneys for the Illinois Republican disclosed at a hearing last month that they are negotiating a possible deal. The presiding judge in Chicago has said he expected an update on those talks by the next hearing, which is scheduled for Thursday.
"In a complicated case like this, you'd expect significant pretrial motions," said Darryl Goldberg, a Chicago-based lawyer. "That there were none sends the signal ... that this will all be resolved short of a trial."
A May indictment alleges 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 decades ago.
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.
The indictment notes that Hastert was a longtime high school teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville, west of Chicago, suggesting the charges are linked to that history.
Both defense attorneys and prosecutors have successfully kept details of the underlying allegations under wraps so far.
At any trial, prosecutors would likely want to provide jurors with at least some background about the misconduct. They could even call "Individual A" as a witness.
If Hastert's attorneys doubted that a favorable plea deal was in their grasp, they probably would have filed multiple legal requests by the Tuesday deadline, possibly including ones barring certain witnesses from testifying at trial, said lawyers and former prosecutors not linked to Hastert's case.
If talks are going well, said former Illinois prosecutor Terry Sullivan, filing pretrial motions might only "ruffle prosecutors' feathers" and hurt Hastert's chances for a deal.
Just because the sides appear to be making progress, that doesn't mean talks are easy, said Jeff Cramer, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the same Chicago office now prosecuting Hastert.
The aim of Hastert's lawyers would be not only to ensure details are never divulged in a trial, Cramer said. They would also want to ensure no details or clues about the misconduct appear in the plea deal itself, in sentencing memos or any other legal document.
"That makes these talks unique," he said.
Another detail defense lawyers might be particularly insistent about leaving out: any mention of motive.
"Hastert may have no problem saying, 'I restructured withdrawals to avoid detection,'" Cramer said. "But he doesn't want to say why he did it."
The recommended sentence could be another point of contention. The defense would probably seek probation, while prosecutors might insist on at least some time behind bars on the grounds that a man who was once second in the line of succession for the presidency should have known better.
Hastert's lead attorney, Washington-based Thomas C. Green, did not return a message seeking comment Wednesday. The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment.
During a July hearing, 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.