CHICAGO — Former House speaker Dennis Hastert, who less than a decade ago stood second in line to the presidency, was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison Wednesday for a bank fraud case linked to allegations he sexually abused teen boys more than 30 years ago.
Federal Judge Thomas Durkin called Hastert, 74, a “serial child molester” and rejected a prosecutor’s recommendation of six months in prison on a banking charge that carries a maximum five-year sentence. The court also fined Hastert $250,000 and sentenced him to two years of supervised release after leaving prison. Hastert must register as a sex offender.
“Nothing is more disturbing than having ‘serial child molester’ and ‘Speaker of the House’ in the same sentence,” Durkin said.
Hastert, who entered court in a wheelchair and needed help standing to address the judge, admitted for the first time mistreating some athletes when he was a high school wrestling coach in Illinois before he began a political career that saw him become the top Republican in Congress.
“I want to apologize to the boys I mistreated,” Hastert said. “They looked (up) at me and I took advantage of them.”
Zachary Fardon, the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois, said federal guidelines for the charge of illegal structuring of bank withdrawals dictated his office’s recommendation for up to a six-month prison term. Hastert pleaded guilty to the charge in October. Fardon noted that Hastert would have faced more serious charges for sex abuse had the statutes of limitation for the criminal sexual misconduct not expired years ago.
The federal guidelines set a maximum sentence for illegal structuring at five years in prison. Prosecutors say Hastert knowingly tried to evade triggering a rule that requires banks to report withdrawals over $10,000 to the IRS, but the money was legally obtained and he paid all appropriate taxes on the funds. Those details direct prosecutors to seek a relatively short sentence under the guidelines.
“We followed the case where it led, we brought the charges we could bring, and through that Mr. Hastert’s legacy and legend are gone,” Fardon said. “In its place are a broken, humiliated man.”
Durkin acknowledged he could not sentence Hastert “for being a child molester” and that his sentence would “pale in comparison” to what the former lawmaker would have faced had he been convicted of state charges for sexual abuse of a child.
Under current Illinois law, Hastert would have faced between three and seven years in state prison if convicted of a single count of sexual misconduct with a minor.
The judge said that the prison term was not intended to be a “death sentence,” but made clear that Hastert’s age and shaky health should not prevent him from doing time. More than 4,600 inmates federally incarcerated are above the age of 70, roughly the same age that Hastert began making the illegally structured withdrawals to cover up his past wrongdoing, the judge said. Durkin has yet to set a surrender date for when Hastert has to report to prison.
Hastert’s lawyer have said that he suffered a small stroke shortly after he pleaded guilty in October, and that he was also hospitalized for a blood infection.
The sentencing completes the spectacular fall of a former small-town high school coach who rose to lead Congress. Hastert was a legendary wrestling coach and social studies teacher at Yorkville for 16 years before launching a political career in the early 1980s that culminated with him being elected as U.S. House speaker.
One former athlete, now 53, testified that he was abused by Hastert, describing a locker room molestation when he was 17 years old.
“Judge, I wanted you to know the pain and suffering he caused me then, and the pain and suffering he causes me today,” said Scott Cross, the brother of prominent Illinois politician Tom Cross. USA TODAY normally does not name victims of abuse, but Cross revealed his name in open court.
Defense attorney Thomas Green confirmed that Hastert asked his legal team to reach out to Tom Cross to write a letter on Hastert’s behalf. Lawyers for Hastert have said in court papers that Hastert did not recall the incident with Scott Cross.
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Jolene Burdge, sister of former wrestling manager Steve Reinboldt, told the judge that Hastert abused her now-deceased brother throughout his years at Yorkville High School.
“Don’t be a coward, Mr. Hastert. Tell the truth,” she said. “What you did was not misconduct, it was sexual abuse of a minor.”
Three other men have come forward and told prosecutors they were also victims of sexual misconduct by Hastert during their time the team.
Hastert acknowledged on Wednesday, for the first time, that he had abused boys under his charge as wrestling coach, but he briefly vacillated when he was asked specifically about his interactions with Reinboldt.
“That was a different situation,” said Hastert, before clarifying that he did indeed abuse Reinboldt.
Hastert in October acknowledged the transactions were made as part an effort to pay off a man, known in court documents as “Individual A,” for past transgressions.
Individual A, who did not testify Wednesday, told prosecutors that Hastert molested him at a motel as Hastert and a group of boys made their home from an out-of-town wrestling camp. The man told prosecutors he was 14 at the time of the incident.
Hastert, who served 20 years in the U.S. House, eight of them as its highest ranking member, before retiring in 2007, left the Chicago courthouse without talking to reporters. Green issued a statement saying that his client “accepts the sentence imposed by the court” and “deeply apologizes to all those affected by his actions.”
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Authorities began investigating Hastert for unusual bank withdrawals after the IRS and FBI became suspicious of some large financial transactions.
From 2010 to 2014, Hastert withdrew a total of approximately $1.7 million in cash from multiple bank accounts and gave it to Individual A. The payments were part of what authorities later learned was an off-the-books agreement Hastert made with the man to make amends for the decades-old sexual misconduct.
Officials at Hastert’s bank in Yorkville initially became suspicious of Hastert after conducting a routine audit in April 2012 in which they found he had made seven withdrawals of $50,000. Bank officials said they asked Hastert why he was making such large withdrawals; banks are required to file currency transaction reports for any withdrawal above $10,000.
Hastert told the bank officials that he was withdrawing the cash for investments and to buy stocks. He also told bank officials he wanted to keep his cash deposits under Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insurance limits.
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Around July 2012, Hastert started structuring his cash withdrawals in increments of less than $10,000 to try to avoid triggering the bank filing requirement. He made $952,000 in withdrawals in mostly $9,000 increments withdrawn on 106 separate occasions, according to prosecutors.
Bank officials’ suspicions were again raised and they informed Hastert in February 2013 that they intended to close his account because of the suspicious activity. Hastert, however, closed his account before the bank acted.
Meanwhile, the FBI and IRS began looking at suspicious activity by Hastert at a Yorkville bank as well as two other banks where he made large withdrawals.
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The former speaker was working at the time as a high-profile lobbyist for the Washington firm Dickstein Shapiro. The amount of cash and Hastert’s background led the federal authorities to further probe whether Hastert was either a perpetrator or victim of some sort of criminal activity, prosecutors said.
When agents initially interviewed Hastert in December 2014, he told them that he was keeping the cash he had been withdrawing in a safe place.
An attorney representing Hastert later told authorities that the former speaker was the victim of an extortion plot by Individual A.
Hastert agreed to allow federal authorities to record conversations he was having with Individual A, so they could try to prove the extortion charge. But it quickly became clear that Hastert had willingly entered an agreement with the former student to pay for his silence.
In their recordings, Individual A even reminded Hastert that he wanted to get lawyers or confidantes of Hastert involved, so they could ensure their agreement was legal, according to court filings.
“You tried to set him up,” an agitated Durkin told Hastert. “You tried to frame him.”
Individual A received just less than half of the $3.5 million agreement, according to prosecutors. Last week, he filed a $1.8 million suit against Hastert in Kendall County, Ill., charging that Hastert was in breach of contract for failing to fulfill their oral agreement.
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Individual A says the abuse occurred in a motel room on the way home from a trip to wrestling camp, according to prosecutors. Between 10 and 14 boys were on the trip. Hastert, the only adult on trip, shared a room with the 14-year-old while the other boys stayed in a different room.
Individual A said Hastert touched him inappropriately after suggesting he would massage a groin injury the boy complained about earlier.
Before Wednesday’s sentencing, Hastert’s legal team said that the ex-lawmaker was sorry for his transgressions, but did not address the allegations against him. In fact, his attorneys raised questions in court filings about whether the incident with Individual A amounted to sexual abuse.
While in Congress, Hastert championed strengthening laws to enforce stricter punishment for repeat child predators. Later during his time in Congress, he also faced criticism for failing to aggressively investigate allegations that Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., had written sexually explicit messages to a teenager who was a House page.
Follow USA TODAY Chicago correspondent Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerISmad
Bacon reported from McLean, Va.
Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert is stepping before a judge to learn his punishment in a hush-money case centered on sex-abuse allegations. (April 27) AP