Dennis Hastert, the small town wrestling coach who rose to become the most powerful lawmaker on Capitol Hill, is now a convicted felon.
It took just 20 minutes Wednesday for Hastert to plead guilty to charges that he intentionally disguised mammoth bank withdrawals in an effort to conceal more than $1 million in payments to a past acquaintance.
Specifically, Hastert admitted in court that he had withdrawn $1.7 million dollars for a person he had once wronged many decades ago, a person identified in court documents only as “Individual A”, with the intention of eventually paying him $3.5 million. The exact nature of the wrongdoing has never been revealed, although various outlets have reported that it was sexual in nature and involved a former student.
Among those withdrawals, Hastert reportedly took some $952,000 out of suburban bank accounts in amounts below $10,000 in an attempt to sidestep federal reporting requirements. Those laws were enacted to alert authorities to massive cash transactions by drug dealers, money launderers, or tax cheats.
“Did you know what you were doing was wrong?” asked Federal Judge Thomas Durkin.
“Yes, sir,” Hastert said. “I didn’t want them to know how I intended to spend the money.”
A charge of lying to the FBI was dismissed. The former Speaker faces a sentence of zero to six months in prison, however, for the charge for which he did plead guilty, which is officially known as "structuring."
“The one thing the parties did not agree to in the sentencing agreement was the actual sentence,” said former prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer, who cited a statement released by the government, saying they would provide the court with what they termed “relevant information” about Hastert’s background.
Cramer interprets that as something of a warning that if Hastert’s legal team fights for probation, they reserve the right to reveal the sordid details of his experience with “Individual A”.
“This is one thing they have, their arrow in their quiver, if you will, about this defendant,” he said. “He didn’t want it to see the light of day in an indictment, he didn’t want it to see the light of day in a plea agreement, but there is still the risk that we could learn about it at sentencing.”
John Marshall Law Professor Hugh Mundy agrees.
“My guess is Mr. Hastert will do some time,” Mundy said. “I think Mr. Hastert’s counsel should be very careful about presenting mitigating evidence or asking for a sentence of probation.”
But longtime federal prosecutor Ron Safer sees a different scenario, and it does not involve jail time. He says during his time in the U.S. Attorney’s office, in cases where the sentencing range was zero to six months, he never saw a single defendant go to prison.
“When you have zero to six months, which is the absolute lowest that the guidelines go,for someone who has zero criminal record for this type of crime, I would wager a lot of money that he’s not going to go to jail,” Safer said.
And because of that, Safer says he believes the public may never know the true story of “Individual A” and Dennis Hastert.
“His legacy will be forever this, not his public career,” said Safer. “He has been humiliated. He has had all sorts of conjecture thrown at him. What more could he lose?”
One of the biggest mysteries, is why Hastert handled the incident the way he did. After all, Safer notes, paying someone money is not illegal.
“Had this been done with lawyers, and they reached an agreement about this and Hastert paid him all of this money by writing a check, there would have been no prosecution, would have been no crime,” Safer said.