Would sex abuse allegations affect Hastert sentencing?

Allegations of sexual misconduct expected to be heard as Hastert is punished for violating banking laws

On paper, the case against former U.S. Speaker Dennis Hastert centers around federal banking charges to which he has pleaded guilty.

But allegations of sexual abuse from his time as a Yorkville wrestling coach decades ago could play into how a judge considers his sentence later this month, legal experts say.

U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin is set to allow an unidentified man known as “Individual D” to testify at the scheduled April 27 hearing if he chooses to. The sister of a man who died more than 20 years ago also could testify at the hearing, which had previously been scheduled for today.

The Chicago Tribune is citing unidentified law enforcement sources as saying at least four people have made “credible allegations of sexual abuse” against Hastert, the longest-serving Republican House speaker in U.S. history.

Hastert's case is ultimately about the way in which he withdrew nearly $1 million of his own money from a bank in small increments to avoid bank reporting requirement.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Ricardo Meza of Arlington Heights says prosecutors could seek to have sex-abuse victims testify to show why Hastert needed to withdraw the money — supporting accusations that he tried to pay $3.5 million in hush money to the unnamed “Individual A” to account for past misconduct.

The former speaker hasn't been convicted of a crime related to that misconduct, but prosecutors could use victim testimony to try to sway a judge toward the higher end of a sentencing range. Hastert's plea deal calls for a sentence up to six months in prison.

“It's clear the government wants to introduce evidence as to why he was violating those laws,” said Meza, now an attorney at Greensfelder Hemker & Gale.

But Terry Sullivan, a legal analyst who prosecuted serial killer John Wayne Gacy and is president of the Sullivan Firm in Rolling Meadows, argued such testimony would be inappropriate.

“It doesn't make any sense to bring somebody else in there who's talking about sexual abuse when the only crime the guy supposedly did was to avoid taxes,” Sullivan said.

“Here's the problem as a trial lawyer. It's almost impossible to cross-examine someone who is way outside of any statute of limitations,” Sullivan said. “There's nothing a defense lawyer could do to defend him. I think it's wrong.”

Hastert's attorneys this week asked for probation for their client, saying in documents filed in federal court that the former speaker “feels deep regret and remorse for his actions” and is “prepared to accept the consequences.”

“He is overwhelmed by the guilt he feels for his actions, for the harm he caused by his misconduct, and for disappointing those who have supported him for so long,” the filing reads.

Specific misconduct wasn't described in the document.

The Associated Press and other media outlets, citing unnamed sources, previously reported that Hastert wanted to hide claims he sexually molested someone, accusations that go back to his time as a Yorkville High School wrestling coach in the 1960s and '70s, before his political career.

The issue was formally raised in court last month.

While Durkin could weigh testimony in the sentencing hearing about past misconduct, he also could consider Hastert's failing health, Meza said. Hastert suffered a stroke late last year that delayed his sentencing hearing.

And his lifetime in politics and government could come into play. Daniel Coyne, clinical professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said a judge has wide discretion to consider or ignore issues when determining a sentence.

“The purpose is not to find someone guilty,” he said. “The purpose is to determine what the appropriate sentence should be. So anything in the background is usually admissible, usually positive or negative.”

Durkin donated to Hastert's campaigns more than a dozen years ago, giving the longtime suburban speaker $1,000 in 2004 and $500 in 2002.

No matter his sentence, Hastert's criminal case has created problems for the long-lauded official's legacy. Wheaton College has renamed the government center that once carried Hastert's name. He no longer is a lobbyist at the Washington, D.C., firm that employed him after his time in Congress.

And even a short-lived effort to build a statue in his honor at the Illinois Capitol has been shelved.

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