Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican House speaker in history, was sentenced to 15 months in prison on Wednesday in a hush money case revolving around allegations that he molested young boys while working as a high school wrestling coach in the 1970s.
Hastert admitted to abusing young boys for the first time before he was sentenced during his court appearance in Chicago on Wednesday. US District Judge Thomas M. Durkin called the former House speaker a "serial child molester" before handing the 74-year-old a prison term that will be followed by two years of supervised release.
But the statute of limitations on the molestation allegations is long passed. Hastert instead pleaded guilty in October to structuring bank withdrawals in order to pay off one of his accusers while avoiding triggering federal oversight.
The accuser, who has remained anonymous and is identified only as "Individual A" in court documents, approached Hastert about the alleged molestation in 2010 after learning of other alleged victims, according to court documents. Hastert then agreed to pay Individual A $3.5 million for "the life-long pain and suffering he caused" if he kept the issue quiet, according to a separate breach-of-contract lawsuit filed by the alleged victim.
After raising eyebrows from banking officials for $50,000 withdrawals, Hastert then moved to skirt federal banking laws by taking out money in increments under $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements, attempting to keep the payments quiet.
But the FBI opened an investigation, ultimately leading to a federal indictment in July. Hastert initially said that he made the withdrawals because he mistrusted the banking system, then told the FBI that Individual A was extorting him over false allegations of misconduct, which he now acknowledges was untrue. Prosecutors dropped the charge of lying to federal investigators as part of Hastert's plea deal.
Judge Durkin set a higher sentence than prosecutors had asked for on Wednesday, saying that he could have added even more prison time for Hastert if not for his health and age. Hastert suffered a stroke in November, not long after the charges were brought against him. He appeared in court in Chicago on Wednesday in a wheelchair
Although the maximum sentence for the structuring charge was five years in prison, prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Hastert to zero to six months in prison after reaching a plea deal with the former House speaker. Hastert's attorneys requested probation.
Judge Durkin said Wednesday that he had to focus solely on the structuring charge.
"I can't sentence you for being a child molester," he said, according to a Chicago Tribune reporter in the courtroom.
Hastert had not directly responded to the allegations of molestation until Wednesday, when he admitted that he had abused at least three of the men who accused him of misconduct during his years as a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville, Illinois. Hastert taught at the school, not far from Chicago, between 1965 and 1981 before beginning his political career.
"What I did was wrong and I regret it," Hastert told the court Wednesday, according to the Chicago Tribune. "They looked to me and I took advantage of them."
According to prosecutors, Hastert inappropriately touched four men as teenagers while he served as their wrestling coach. Prosecutors laid out the allegations, which include the "intentional touching of minors' groin area and genitals" and "oral sex with a minor," in its sentencing memo in the bank withdrawal structuring case.
One of those alleged victims, Scott Cross who was identified as "Individual D" in court documents, testified in court on Wednesday.
"I trusted Coach Hastert," Cross told a judge in emotional testimony on Wednesday.
According to court documents filed by prosecutors, Cross was a member of Hastert's wrestling team in high school. Cross told investigators that Hastert "put a 'Lazyboy'-type chair in direct view of the shower stalls in the locker room where he sat while the boys showered." When he was 17, Cross says that Hastert offered to give him a massage to help him make weight for a match. Hastert asked him to lie face-up on a table and "then performed a sexual act" on him. That was the only time Hastert molested him, Cross alleged in court documents.
Hastert admitted in court that he had abused the other victims, but said that he did not remember abusing Cross, according to a CBS Chicago reporter who was in the courtroom.
Cross is the younger brother of Tom Cross, a former Republican leader in the Illinois state House who has credited Hastert as a mentor who helped him to get his start in politics.
The sister of another alleged victim, who was identified by the Chicago Tribune as Stephen Reinboldt and died of AIDS in 1995, also testified.
Individual A declined to testify in court on Wednesday, as he pursues a separate lawsuit. Individual A claims that he accompanied Hastert on a wrestling trip at the former speaker's request when he was just 14 years old and not yet old enough to join the high school team. During that trip, Hastert massaged his groin "in an inappropriate sexual way," prosecutors say.
When Individual A discovered that other boys had leveled similar accusations against Hastert, he met with the former speaker to discuss the issue and set up the settlement agreement.
Individual A received $1.7 million from Hastert between 2010 and 2014, decades after the speaker allegedly molested him in a motel room at the age of 14. He is now suing Hastert in a separate case for the remaining $1.8 million.
In a statement to the Chicago Tribune earlier this month, Hastert's attorney said that the speaker was sorry for his misconduct, but did not specifically address the molestation allegations.
"Mr. Hastert has made mistakes in judgment and committed transgressions for which he is profoundly sorry," his attorney said. "He fully understands the gravity of his misconduct decades ago and regrets that he resorted to... an effort to prevent the disclosure of that misconduct."
Hastert served as the Speaker of the House from 1999-2007, during both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. His legacy continues to loom large over the House. Republicans in Congress often refer to the "Hastert Rule," which was an informal policy he adopted during his speakership that required any legislation on the House floor to have a majority support from the ruling party (then, and now, the Republicans) before it would receive a vote.
Hastert's speakership was marked by numerous political scandals, but none involving the speaker himself. His majority leader, Tom DeLay, resigned in 2005 amid conspiracy charges resulting from a campaign finance scandal, and was later acquitted. The end of Hastert's speakership was dominated by the congressional page scandal involving Republican Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned after sending inappropriate messages to teenagers working in the House.
Hastert was heavily criticized for his handling of the Foley scandal and the House Ethics Committee found that he and other members of House leadership had been "willfully ignorant" of early warning signs. Despite that negligence, the committee did not cite Hastert or others with violating House rules.
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