The man suing disgraced former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert over hush money payments stemming from decades-old allegations of sexual abuse will be identified in court for the first time when the trial begins later this month, a judge has ruled.
During a hearing Thursday, Judge Robert Pilmer, the chief judge of Illinois’ 23rd Judicial Circuit, which includes Kendall County where the lawsuit was filed, denied the plaintiff’s motion to proceed under a fictitious name. Referred to in court filings only as James Doe, the plaintiff’s actual name and identity will be used in court beginning with jury selection on Sept. 20, at which point the case will also no longer be referred to as Doe v. Hastert, Pilmer ordered.
Hastert, 79, served roughly 85% of a 15-month prison sentence handed down in 2016 after he pleaded guilty to one felony count of the financial crime known as structuring: concealing banking activity by withdrawing large sums of cash in small denominations to avoid federal reporting requirements.
Prosecutors said Hastert broke federal banking rules by obscuring his withdrawals of $1.7 million to pay hush money to a former student he had sexually abused in the 1970s while working as a teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville High School before entering politics. That individual is now suing Hastert for breach of contract, seeking the unpaid balance of the $3.5 million total in hush money, about $1.8 million.
Hastert was not charged in connection with any of the allegations of sexual abuse in part because the statute of limitations in Illinois – within three years of the incident or three years after an underage victim turns 18 – had already expired.
On the motion to continue using a pseudonym in court, the plaintiff’s attorney Kristi Browne argued Thursday that her client “has gone through extreme emotional distress” and was “entitled” to the protection of anonymity. Hastert’s attorney John Ellis contended that the protection of referring to the plaintiff as James Doe would be “drastically diminished” when the plaintiff appears at and testifies during the public trial.
Ellis also argued that the protection of anonymity offered to sexual abuse victims would not apply in this case because the jury will be asked to decide only on the alleged breach of contract, not the abuse itself – a point Browne refuted, saying the jury will have to make a decision about whether her client had been molested, citing inconsistencies between Hastert’s deposition in the lawsuit and his statements in federal court, where he admitted to the sexual abuse and apologized for his actions during sentencing.
“I think the particular circumstances and the particular facts of this case as a breach of contract matter as opposed to a matter specifically involving allegations of abuse is somewhat different, and while there is the opportunity, as was done at the outset, to protect the identity of the plaintiff at that time, I think as we begin the jury trial, it would not be appropriate to continue to identify the plaintiff under a pseudonym,” Pilmer said.
Browne said after the hearing that she was “disappointed” in the ruling but the fact that her client would be identified did not change anything related to potential settlement negotiations.
“I’m disappointed but we’ve always known that was a possibility so we were prepared for it,” Browne said. She demurred when asked if the ruling impacted her client’s willingness to testify but noted, “It doesn’t change that we intend to go forward with trial.”
“There isn’t a settlement, that’s all I can say,” she said, when asked about the possibility of a settlement before the trial begins. “As of right now, we haven’t settled the case.”
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 15, with jury selection to begin on Sept. 20.