CHICAGO – Former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert pleaded guilty today to bank fraud charges connected to $1.7 million he paid to cover up what federal officials said was sexual misconduct dating back to his years as a high school teacher and coach. Prosecutors are recommending up to a six-month prison sentence.
The early-morning plea hearing was being closely watched to see whether it reveals new information about the misdeeds Hastert allegedly paid to conceal. Neither the person whom Hastert allegedly paid off nor the wrongdoing has been made public.
Hastert, R-Illinois, 73, was charged in July with breaking federal bank laws and lying to investigators looking into the matter – ostensibly dull counts that prosecutors alleged stemmed from an intriguing plot. According to the indictment, Hastert, who was a teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville before he got into politics in the early 1980s, agreed to pay someone $3.5 million to hide "past misconduct" against the person.
A federal law enforcement official has said the person was a male former student of Hastert's who alleged that Hastert molested him years ago. The indictment says Hastert paid the person about $1.7 million from 2010 to 2014.
The person was not named in the indictment, and his identity and the specifics of his allegations remain perhaps the greatest mysteries in the case. Experts did not expect today's hearing to shed new light on those topics, suggesting that Hastert probably pleaded guilty in part to avoid an in-court airing of his past. He has remained silent about the case.
"I think that the detailed allegations that interest the public the most likely will never come to light," said Jacob Frenkel, a criminal defense attorney at the Shulman Rogers firm.
The plea hearing before U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin is notable for what it will reveal about the sentence Hastert might face.
Frenkel said that the specific terms of the plea will shape the sentence, and that it is possible that Hastert could face only probation. David B. Smith, a criminal defense lawyer at the Smith & Zimmerman firm who specializes in forfeiture law, said that of the more than 50 clients he has represented in "structuring" cases such as Hastert's, only five have pleaded guilty to criminal charges, and none were sentenced to prison. (The vast majority were handled as civil matters.) He said that sentencing guidelines on structuring are outdated and might call for a prison term, but that he doubts a judge would impose one.
"Unless the judge is just trying to punish him for the sexual offense that just couldn't be prosecuted, I don't see him getting any jail time, and I don't think he should get any jail time," Smith said.
News of Hastert's indictment shocked those who know him, and the plea will mark the end of another chapter in his stunning fall from grace. Hastert was the longest-serving Republican speaker in U.S. House history, holding the position from 1999 to 2006. He resigned after the Republicans lost the majority and began a lucrative career as a lobbyist.
His firm, Dickstein Shapiro, announced his resignation soon after he was indicted.
Kendall County Coroner Ken Toftoy, who served a stint as chairman of the Kendall County Republican Party, said he was somewhat speechless to first hear the news of the guilty plea this morning.
“I guess it just kind of shocked me,” Toftoy said. “I helped on his [first congressional] campaign in '86 and did a lot of work for him and pulled him around in parades and he's always been a good friend. I guess I'm just shocked to hear about it.”
When asked if he thought Hastert should clear the air by making a statement to the public, Toftoy said he didn't know.
“I guess that's just up to him,” he said. “I couldn't put myself in his shoes. I wouldn't know how to act and I'm pretty much a guy who tells it like it is.”
The specific charges against Hastert stem from how he withdrew the hush money at the center of the case and what he told federal investigators looking into the matter. The indictment alleges that Hastert withdrew sums in amounts meant to avoid federal reporting requirements and, when the FBI asked why, told agents he did not feel safe with the banking system.
"Yeah ... I kept the cash. That's what I'm doing," Hastert told the FBI, according to the indictment.
Smith said such charges are easy to prove, although Congress is considering legislative reform that would effectively do away with the crime. He said he questioned prosecutors' decision to charge Hastert because the money he paid was legitimately earned, and some might view the person whom Hastert paid as having extorted the former speaker.
Prosecutors' view of that person remains unclear. He is referred to in documents only as "Individual A."
• Shaw Media contributed to this report.