Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert Pleads Guilty On Federal Banking Law Charges
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert has entered a guilty plea in the Federal banking fraud case that he was indicted on earlier this year:
CHICAGO — J. Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to trying to evade federal banking laws, telling a district judge here that he had known what he was doing was wrong.
The plea brought a quick, quiet finish to a proceeding that had startled many in Washington who once knew Mr. Hastert as one of the nation’s most powerful leaders, and in Yorkville, Ill., his rural hometown, who remembered Mr. Hastert as their winning high school wrestling coach.
Prosecutors said they believed that federal guidelines called for a sentence of up to six months in prison. But the judge, Thomas M. Durkin of Federal District Court, indicated that he would not decide on Mr. Hastert’s punishment before reading a presentencing report. Sentencing was scheduled for Feb. 29.
Mr. Hastert told the judge why he had structured bank withdrawals in an attempt to avoid detection. “I didn’t want them to know how I would spend the money,” he said. Asked whether he understood at the time that his conduct was wrong, he said yes.
As part of the plea agreement, Mr. Hastert, 73, pleaded guilty to one of the two federal charges against him in an indictment announced in May. Each of those charges — structuring large bank withdrawals to avoid detection and making false statements to federal investigators about those withdrawals — carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Dressed in a dark suit and tie, Mr. Hastert arrived at the federal courthouse more than an hour before his hearing was scheduled to begin. He made his way through the public entrance, went through a security screening and was escorted by several federal marshals past a line of TV cameras. He did not pause to answer questions.
The plea, which had been anticipated for weeks, allows Mr. Hastert to avoid a lengthy trial where details of long-ago events threatened to emerge. The guilty plea to a relatively technical-sounding violation seemed harmless in comparison with the damaging suggestions raised by the indictment and by some briefed on the investigation months ago.
The indictment accused Mr. Hastert of structuring cash withdrawals totaling $1.7 million in a way meant to avoid the notice of bank officials. Then when federal authorities asked about the withdrawals, he lied about them.
Prosecutors said the money was being used to make up for past “misconduct” against a person the indictment described only as “Individual A.” The indictment said Mr. Hastert had eventually to pay $3.5 million to “compensate for and conceal” that misconduct.
Details were not addressed in court or in publicly filed legal documents, but two people briefed on an F.B.I. inquiry said the money had gone toward covering up claims of sexual misconduct with a male student decades ago. Mr. Hastert was a coach and high school teacher from 1965 until 1981 in Yorkville, about 60 miles west of here. Mr. Hastert was not charged with sex crimes, which are covered by statutes of limitation. The former student, who remains unidentified, did not come forward publicly.
This plea deal has been expected for several weeks now given the fact that the case against Hastert seems to be airtight and that going to trial would have required prosecutors to go into at least some detail regarding the underlying misconduct that he was paying to cover-up. When the indictment was originally filed, it was clear that the charges were related to allegations of sexual misconduct involving a student during the time that Hastert was a coach and teacher. After those reports came out, additional stories of alleged misconduct on Hastert’s part began to leak out. Had the case gone to trial, it’s certain that we would have learned these details and, indeed, we still might. Pleading guilty, though, spares Hastert from having them come out in a court of law.
As for a sentence, it seems unlikely that Hastert will spend much, if any, time in jail over this. As noted, prosecutors are taking the position that sentencing guidelines call for a six month sentence in this case but that’s only one side of the story and there are numerous factors that the Judge can weigh in determining a sentence. Given Hastert’s age, the nature of the charges, and the fact that he plead guilty, I’d actually be surprised if he spent any time in Federal prison. Instead, it’s possible that he may have to spend some period of time in a “halfway house” where he will be permitted to leave during the day, under some form of in-home confinement, or end up with a suspended sentence and a monetary fine. Beyond that, of course, he could face potential civil liability related to any abuse he committed while a teacher assuming that the applicable statute(s) of limitation have not expired, but it would seem rather unlikely that he would still be subject to criminal prosecution for conduct that occurred no more recently than the very early 1980s based on what we know.