Report: Hastert was trying to conceal sexual abuse of student
The indictment of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert was triggered by his alleged effort to hide payments of hush money to a male student he allegedly sexually molested decades ago, a federal law enforcement official said Friday.
The indictment asserts that the acts Hastert wanted to conceal date back to a time when he was a teacher and coach in Yorkville before entering politics in the early 1980s, the official said. Authorities said the victim, who has spoken with law enforcement officials, was one of Hastert's students.
Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker in House history, is not expected to face molestation charges because authorities don't think they have enough evidence to bring a case against him, the official said.
A federal grand jury in Chicago on Thursday indicted the former speaker, 73, on charges that he violated banking laws in a bid to pay $3.5 million to an unnamed person to cover up "past misconduct." The male victim is that person, the official said.
The case has riveted and shocked Washington, where Hastert has been a high-paid lobbyist since his 2007 retirement from Congress.
"The Denny I served with worked hard on behalf of his constituents and the country. I'm shocked and saddened to learn of these reports," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement released Friday.
Law enforcement officials said they, at first, didn't know what to make of a series of large cash withdrawals Hastert began making in 2010.
It was only after FBI agents interviewed Hastert in December, officials said, that investigators began piecing together the details. In that interview, the indictment said, Hastert lied to the agents, telling them he made the withdrawals because he didn't feel safe keeping his money in the banking system.
"Yeah ... I kept the cash. That's what I'm doing," Hastert was quoted as telling agents.
Actually, court documents said, Hastert was scheming to mask more than $950,000 in withdrawals from various accounts, in violation of federal banking laws that require the disclosure of large cash transactions.
Hastert, of Plano, has not responded to a message asking for comment, and federal authorities say he doesn't yet have an attorney of record. A message left for his son, attorney Ethan Hastert, hasn't been returned.
"I just look as a schoolteacher in the late 1970s and 1980s, I never dreamed I would be speaker of the House," Hastert told the Daily Herald in 2008 when asked about regrets in his career. "You know, I guess anybody would have made some changes in their lives in one place or another if you had the power to do it, but you don't."
It was unclear whether the person prosecutors describe as "Individual A" would be charged with a crime for asking for cash in exchange for silence. Paying out $3.5 million would have come easier because of the influence Hastert, 73, gained in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.
On the day he was indicted, Hastert resigned from a job at the Washington, D.C., lobbying and legal firm Dickstein Shapiro, where he could use his past government career to lure clients to the firm. Federal disclosure records show Hastert client and cigarette manufacturer Lorillard paid more than $1 million to Hastert's firm in 2014 alone.
"He collected an incredible amount of money," Illinois Campaign for Political Reform board chairwoman Susan Garrett said.
Yorkville Unit District 115 officials said they've received no complaints about Hastert, who taught there between 1965 and 1981, but will cooperate with authorities. Hastert also resigned Friday from Wheaton College's J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy, the namesake institution he helped create at his alma mater.
Hastert associates said they did not know where their former boss was holed up during the biggest crisis of his career.
Hastert's legal troubles floated a dark cloud over a state that has seen its share of political storms. The former speaker's influence has been widespread, and Democrats in Springfield were in the process of trying to spend up to $500,000 to build a statue in his honor when Hastert called the project off in recent weeks.
Former Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego calls himself a "protégé" of the former speaker in a biography in his new job as a consultant at Culloton Strategies.
And state Sen. Jim Oberweis, a Sugar Grove Republican who nearly succeeded in winning Hastert's seat in Congress, said the indictment was stunning.
The allegations against Hastert come as a particular surprise in a political climate where both parties dispatch crack researchers to dig every speck of dirt to be found on their opponents.
"You think if there was damaging information somebody would have used it politically years ago," Oberweis said.
"I have my fingers crossed that maybe there's a good explanation," he said. "But it looks pretty bleak."
Voters knew that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was under investigation years before he was arrested. Former Gov. George Ryan's woes played out in public as well. News of Hastert's indictment broke via email out of the blue Thursday afternoon.
Kerin Harris, 79, who said she's friends with Hastert, said she's been following high school wrestling at Yorkville High for more than 40 years. She has eight children who she said were taught by Hastert, including one son who was on Hastert's wrestling team. She said she baked the cake for the wedding of Hastert's son.
Hastert was "never anything but a 100 percent wonderful man," Harris said Friday at a beauty shop in Yorkville.
"I was stunned. That would be putting it mildly," said Harris, who still keeps score at wrestling matches. "I've been sick all day."
Don Davidson, who taught history with Hastert at Yorkville Community High School between 1970 and 1977, said he was "astounded ... He was a good teacher, and he treated the students fairly."
Davidson, who also coached the basketball team at Yorkville, said he "never heard anything along those lines" about allegations of misconduct on the part of the former speaker.
The particular allegations in the indictment hadn't been mentioned before, though Hastert hasn't been entirely free from controversy.
The speaker faced tough questions over the Republican leadership's handling of allegations against former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida lawmaker who sent sexually suggestive messages to teenage congressional pages. Hastert told the Daily Herald after he retired that the scandal likely was a factor in Republicans losing their grip on the U.S. House in the 2006 elections.
"I understand as a parent, I understand that problem. But we did what we thought was the right thing to do," Hastert said. "That's what everybody that looked into it, whether they're federal prosecutors or the ethics committee, said we did."
Bob Evans, 70, who taught alongside Hastert for 14 years at Yorkville High, serving as his assistant wrestling coach for some of them, said he never heard even a whisper about any wrongdoing on Hastert's part.
"I can't believe it," he said, standing in his driveway, on a street where Hastert once lived. "The people I've talked to in Yorkville that know him, they're just absolutely shocked."
Evans recalled Hastert as being devoted to wrestling to the point that he would travel across the country to learn a new wrestling move to give his wrestlers an advantage in Illinois.
"He mentored a lot of kids. He was an integral part of their lives," he said. "He was never a screamer. He was a demander. He wanted the best from them."
As a coach, Evans said, Hastert had a knack for getting the most out of wrestlers with average athletic talent through hard work. Hastert's coaching career culminated in a 1976 state championship.
"It throws a black cloud over what he did all those years," he said. "They won conference championships, state championships. They were good people. They were good kids."
"If it did happen," Evans added, "then get it out ... but you just got to hope it isn't as bad as it seems."
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican and former member of the House, served under Hastert's speakership for a few terms.
"Anyone who knows Denny is shocked and confused by the recent news," Kirk said in a statement Friday. "The former speaker should be afforded, like any other American, his day in court to address these very serious accusations. This is a very troubling development that we must learn more about, but I am thinking of his family during this difficult time."
With the accusations apparently stemming from his time in Yorkville, Hastert's legal troubles could come full circle for a dynamic political career built on a story of humble roots.
"He always had the reputation of a small-town guy who's done very well, a very savvy, smart guy, and it's shocking," Oberweis said. "We don't know all the details yet, but I just can't understand why he would allow himself to get involved in blackmail. It makes no sense to me."
• Daily Herald staff writers Mike Riopell and Erin Hegarty, and Bloomberg News contributed to this story.