The Latest: Hastert admits to hush money in written deal

28 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, center, arrives at the federal courthouse Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Chicago, where he is scheduled to change his plea to guilty in a hush-money case that alleges he agreed to pay someone $3.5 million to hide claims of past misconduct by the Illinois Republican. (Matt Marton | The Associated Press) CHICAGO (AP) — Dennis Hastert pleaded guilty Wednesday to evading banking laws in a hush-money scheme, averting a trial by agreeing to a deal with federal prosecutors that recommends the former House speaker serve no more than six months in prison.Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to trying to evade federal banking laws, telling a district judge here that he had known what he was doing was wrong. Before accepting the plea, the 73-year-old Republican 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. The plea brought a quick, quiet finish to a proceeding that had startled many in Washington who once knew Hastert as one of the nation’s most powerful leaders, and in Yorkville, Illinois, his rural hometown, who remembered Hastert as their winning high school wrestling coach.

Some key events in Hastert’s life and career and the criminal case against him: 1980: Hastert comes in third in state House primary, but the GOP chooses him to replace the fatally ill primary winner. Hastert later wins the general election. 1998: Hastert tells incumbent House Speaker Newt Gingrich that dissatisfaction in GOP ranks makes it unlikely the Georgia lawmaker will hold onto post. 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. Hastert denies reports he may have known about the allegations earlier. 2007: Hastert steps down as speaker after becoming longest-serving Republican in the position.

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 be have done what authorities allege. Hastert told the judge why he had structured bank withdrawals in an attempt to avoid detection. “I didn’t want them to know how I would spend the money,” he said. Hastert, who was once the third-highest ranking elected official in America, was surrounded by his attorneys and federal marshals who escorted him out of the downtown courthouse to a waiting car following the hearing.

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. At the half-hour hearing in Chicago, a subdued Hastert read from a brief written statement that — like his indictment — focused narrowly on how he technically broke banking laws. 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 when he worked at Yorkville High School. 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.

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. He made his way through the public entrance, went through a security screening and was escorted by several federal marshals past a line of TV cameras. The guilty plea to a relatively technical-sounding violation seemed harmless in comparison with the damaging suggestions raised by the indictment and by some briefed on the investigation months ago.

As he finished, the judge immediately asked: “Did you know that what you were doing was wrong?” Since the plea deal offers a wide punishment range, the sentencing hearing could include arguments from prosecutors on why Hastert should spend some time behind bars and from the defense about why he should be spared prison. At the time, agents asked if he was withdrawing the money because he did not feel safe with the banking system, Hastert allegedly responded, “Yeah . . .

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. 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. The change-of-plea hearing was the longtime GOP leader’s first court appearance since his arraignment in June, when he pleaded not guilty in the same courtroom. 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.

The former student, who remains unidentified, did not come forward publicly. “The one thing this defendant clearly didn’t want to have was – essentially – his day in court,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor here who is not involved in this case. “He doesn’t want the reason for the structuring to come out. After learning withdrawals over $10,000 are flagged, he began taking out smaller increments, eventually withdrawing $952,000 from 2012 to 2014, according to the indictment. Still, Dick Simpson, a political scientist and former Chicago alderman whose analysis of convictions since 1976 suggests that this is the most corrupt metropolitan region in the United States, said the remaining unknowns around Hastert’s case were unusual.

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. 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. Jackson Jr., the former Democratic representative who pleaded guilty in 2013 to fraud, details were made public down to the campaign money he spent on a fedora that once belonged to Michael Jackson, on stuffed animals from Build-A-Bear and on an elk head from Montana. Although it is possible that more details about the case could be revealed at Hastert’s sentencing, scheduled for Feb. 29, experts said that he was admitting wrongdoing probably in part to avoid an in-court airing of his past actions. “I think that the detailed allegations that interest the public the most likely will never come to light,” said Jacob Frenkel, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer with the Shulman Rogers firm. 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.

For Hastert, who already seemed to have faded in political memory by the time of his indictment, the events were a puzzling coda to what had been an unlikely political career. 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. Following the announcement of the indictment, the sister of one of Hastert’s old wrestling team managers alleged was sexually abused by Hastert when he was a teen. 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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