Dennis Hastert pleads guilty, acknowledges hush-money scheme

29 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Dennis Hastert pleads guilty to lying to the FBI in hush-money case.

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert pleaded guilty Wednesday in his hush-money case — a move that sealed the downfall of a politician who rose from obscurity in rural Illinois to the third-highest office in the nation. The hearing in Chicago was the 73-year-old Republican’s first court appearance since June, when he pleaded not guilty in the wake of an indictment alleging he agreed to pay $3.5 million to someone referred to only as “Individual A” to hide past misconduct by Hastert. The Associated Press and other media, citing anonymous sources, have reported that the payments were meant to conceal claims of sexual misconduct from decades ago. Before accepting the plea, the 73-year-old was warned by the judge that he could go beyond the recommendation and give Hastert up to five years behind bars when he is sentenced in February. A: In the 15-page agreement he signed Wednesday, Hastert directly acknowledged for the first time that he engaged in a scheme to buy someone’s silence.

Under the plea agreement, federal prosecutor Steven Block recommended that Hastert, the longest serving GOP speaker in history, be sentenced to zero to six months in federal prison. He admitted that he withdrew money from banks in increments low enough to avoid mandatory reporting requirements and that he paid someone to keep decades-old misconduct a secret. The indictment, unsealed nearly five months ago, referred to the alleged wrongdoing by Hastert as “prior misconduct” against someone identified as “Individual A” but did not offer any details. Friends and former colleagues said Wednesday that the case will undeniably tarnish Hastert’s reputation, but they were still trying to reconcile how the respected leader could have done what authorities allege.

But federal law enforcement officials told USA TODAY that Hastert made illegally structured withdrawals as part of an effort to conceal sexual misconduct he committed against a male student decades earlier at Yorkville High School, where Hastert worked as a teacher and wrestling coach before entering politics Hastert circumvented the federal requirement that requires banks to report withdrawals of more than $10,000. While he acknowledges in the agreement that lied to the FBI about why he was withdrawing so much cash, the plea deal indicates prosecutors will dismiss that charge later. Hastert told Judge Thomas Durkin that after bank officials informed him in April 2012 that he’d have to report to them how he was spending the withdrawals over $10,000 under currency transaction rules, he began making withdrawals in smaller increments to try to avoid detection. “I didn’t want them to know how I was spending the money, ” Hastert said in court.

By pleading guilty, Hastert avoids a trial that could have divulged the embarrassing secrets dating back to his days as a high-school wrestling coach that he presumably wanted to keep under wraps by paying hush money. Hastert was charged in July with breaking federal banking laws and lying to investigators — ostensibly dull counts that prosecutors alleged stemmed from an intriguing plot. Judges are also generally more likely to give lighter sentences to defendants who accept responsibility for their actions and spare the government the cost of a trial.

A: When the judge asked Hastert to describe his wrongdoing, a subdued Hastert read from a brief written statement that focused narrowly on how he technically broke banking laws. Former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Dennis Hastert leaves the federal court after entering a guilty plea on charges of illegal structuring of bank withdrawals. Attorney Steven Block said Hastert paid a person who confronted him about past misconduct in an attempt to “compensate for and keep confidential” what he had done. As he finished, the judge immediately asked: “Did you know that what you were doing was wrong?” The 15-page plea deal, which Hastert signed Wednesday, was released after the hearing. Block said the misconduct had occurred decades ago and was “against” the person whom Hastert paid, but he did not name the person or say what the misconduct entailed.

The four months gives court officials time to prepare a presentencing report on Hastert, and it gives attorneys on both sides time to prepare for arguments. Hastert acknowledged that after the bank asked about his large cash withdrawals — and he found out that they had to be reported — he started withdrawing smaller amounts to avoid scrutiny.

Davis III (R-Va.), who worked with Hastert, said that although his friend and former colleague’s reputation might be sullied, he hopes his political legacy will not be. We have no further comment about the matter at this time.” Andrew Herman, a Washington defense attorney who has represented lawmakers targeted by ethics investigations in Congress, said that it is possible that Judge Durkin could ask attorneys for further detail about the contact between Hastert and the Individual A. Prosecutors could theoretically call to the witness stand the unnamed person Hastert was allegedly paying, a prospect that could make public the conduct Hastert sought to conceal.

Mostly reporters filled Durkin’s 14th-floor courtroom to watch Hastert’s plea, taking copious notes as he answered a series of mostly procedural questions. It notes in the first sentence that Hastert was a high school teacher and coach from 1965 to 1981 in Yorkville, west of Chicago, strongly suggesting that the alleged payoffs are tied to that period of his life.

Hastert initially spoke softly — so much so that Durkin advised him to raise his voice — but he seemed to gain confidence as the hearing progressed. Following the announcement of the indictment, the sister of one of Hastert’s old wrestling team managers alleged her brother was sexually abused by Hastert when he was a teen. Jolene Burdge of Billings, Mont., told ABC News that her brother, Steve Reinboldt, who died of AIDS in 1995, confided to her that he was the victim of four years of sexual abuse by Hastert. The government will make known all matters in aggravation and mitigation relevant to sentencing.” Block said prosecutors are still mulling over whether to call witnesses at the sentencing; defense attorneys said they would have none.

The U.S. attorney’s office issued a statement after the plea, saying that prosecutors would “provide the Court with relevant information about the defendant’s background and the charged offenses” at sentencing. Smith, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer with the Smith & Zimmerman firm, said though federal sentencing guidelines might call for a prison term, he doubted 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. Prosecutors’ view of the person Hastert paid remains unclear; he was referred to in documents and in court only as “Individual A.” Davis said he and others were curious to know more about him, because the Hastert he knew did not seem capable of such egregious misconduct.

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