CHICAGO – Former House speaker Dennis Hastert – stooped, silent and trailed by cameras – pleaded not guilty in federal court Tuesday, responding to felony charges related to alleged hush-money payments made to hide what law enforcement says is an embarrassing secret dating back decades.
Hastert’s arraignment, his first public appearance since his indictment, lasted less than 20 minutes. He barely spoke, and did so softly when he was questioned about the charges against him.
“Yes” and “Yes, sir,” Hastert said to U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin, who released him on a $4,500 bond.
The hearing did little to answer the larger questions that have captivated Hastert’s neighbors in Illinois and his former House colleagues in Washington since the May 28 indictment.
Who was Hastert allegedly seeking to keep quiet, and why? What could he have done that was worth $3.5 million to conceal? And did Hastert, a former teacher, Scout leader and wrestling coach, abuse those positions of trust?
Hastert is charged with trying to mask more than $950,000 in withdrawals from various accounts in violation of federal banking laws that require the disclosure of large cash transactions, and with lying to federal investigators.
But it is the alleged purpose of his cash withdrawals that has generated the most shock.
According to the indictment, Hastert agreed to pay an unnamed person $3.5 million “to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct” against that person.
A federal law enforcement official familiar with the investigation has told the Washington Post that the misconduct involved the alleged sexual molestation of a male student. The indictment identifies the person only as a resident of Yorkville, Illinois – a small town about 50 miles west of Chicago where Hastert worked as a high school teacher, Boy Scout leader and wrestling coach from 1965 until 1981 – and as someone who has known Hastert for “most of (his) life.”
Most of Tuesday’s hearing pertained to a long disclosure that Durkin – the judge – made about his various connections to Hastert. He described a pair of campaign donations he made to Hastert more than a decade ago and a period in which he worked with Hastert’s son Ethan while a lawyer in private practice.
Durkin gave Hastert and prosecutors until Thursday to review his disclosures and determine whether to waive his offer to step aside.
Hastert relinquished his passport Tuesday and agreed to remove firearms from his property in Plano, the town next to Yorkville where Hastert has lived for decades.
Thomas Green, Hastert’s lead attorney, is a Washington litigator who has represented figures in political scandals dating to Watergate.
Terry Sullivan, a former Illinois state prosecutor now in criminal defense practice in Chicago, said a jury might question FBI tactics that led to the false-statements charge: “The FBI does so well because they surprise people at their house in the morning. You don’t have a lawyer there, you’re trying to shake off sleep, and they sit down at your kitchen table.”
But Hugh Mundy, a professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago, said prosecutors may not have an especially hard time proving their case, because they do not have to establish that Hastert had the intent to deceive the authorities.
The case, he said, remains remarkable for the contrast between the charges filed and the alleged conduct underlying them.
“It sort of strikes me as a situation where a guy robs a bank and the government charges him with speeding in the getaway car,” Mundy said. “This is certainly the most sensational structuring charge that I’ve ever seen. â » It’s usually not sexual abuse from decades ago.”
Legal observers here say they have doubts about whether the case will go to trial. They say that while Hastert is not charged with any sex-related crimes, he may not want a trial that examines the “prior misconduct” alleged in the indictment.
“I wouldn’t want to go to trial, because what is dirty laundry under the bed will no longer be under the bed,” said Richard Kling, a professor at the Chicago-Kent School of Law. “If I were he, I would want to get away from this building as quickly as I possibly could.”
But Sullivan said that Hastert, in the course of defending himself against the banking charges, could deny engaging in any long-secret wrongdoing – claiming, perhaps, that the unnamed recipient wrongly accused him but he decided to pay anyway.
“If all you have is your reputation, and you’re 73, and you don’t really need that money â » it’s still plausible to me,” he said.