Hometown residents shocked it's their 'Denny' Hastert who's indicted
It's not another Illinois politician facing criminal charges that surprises them. It's that it's their politician.
For many in Yorkville, the idea that former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert -- called Denny by most in town -- would be the target of a federal indictment was unthinkable. That the charges of concealing bank withdrawals might link back to accusations of sexual misconduct decades ago when Hastert was a teacher and coach is even harder for many to believe.
"Of course we're all talking about it," said Gary Bulloch, a former student of Hastert at Yorkville High School in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "It's insane."
Hastert, 73, is accused of lying to the FBI and violating federal banking laws to cover up about $1.7 million in payments he made beginning in 2010 "to conceal prior misconduct" against someone in Yorkville that Hastert had known for a long time, according to an indictment made public Thursday. Prosecutors said Hastert had agreed to pay $3.5 million in hush money over several years.
"Yes, it's surprising," said Michael Spada, owner of D&H Ag The Country Store in Yorkville. "Look, he's a smart guy and a kind guy. My opinion is it's none of anyone's business if it's his own money, but if he did something illegal then go join (incarcerated former Gov. Rod) Blagojevich and the rest of them."
Hastert made his political bones on his Midwestern middle-of-the-road persona. At a time of great upheaval within the Republican party, he rose to third in line to the presidency mainly based on the fact that there was nothing controversial about him.
In the wake of the indictment, Hastert resigned from his lucrative lobbying job in Washington, D.C., as well as his post on Wheaton College's J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy, the namesake institution he helped create at his alma mater. He has not made any public statements about the charges he is facing, nor is he returning calls seeking comment.
"Everything just seems to be going so fast because this just feels like it came out of nowhere," said Dennis Donnellan of Bristol. "We have neighbors who've had the Hasterts over and I've talked to a couple people who were his students, and it's probably a greater impact on people like that, but to me it's just politics in Illinois."
Numerous publications cite unnamed federal sources as saying the payoffs were to buy silence about sexual misconduct with a former male student, who was not identified in court papers and has not been charged.
Yorkville School District 115 issued a statement saying officials are unaware of any misconduct by Hastert during the 16 years he taught and coached there between 1965 and 1981. And that goes for a lot of people in town.
"There's never been a whisper of anything like that," Bulloch said. "Not a thing."
Prosecutors said the person Hastert is accused of paying off still lives in Yorkville, but some in town seem unconcerned about uncovering that person's identity.
Hastert "has done a lot of good for the community and I believe he's innocent until proven guilty," said Debbie Brykczynski, owner of Yorkville Bowl. "I care more about why it was done than who it is."
Yorkville's population increased from 2,000 to more than 16,000 people in 2010. Many of the town's main roads are torn up for widening projects that are expected to help attract more people and businesses to the area.
Though Hastert's been out of office since 2007, many in town believe he remains a powerful force behind the area's continued prosperity. Not having Hastert's influence on lawmakers might hurt the area, they fear.
"It will probably slow things down around here," said Yorkville resident Marilyn Rooney.
Hastert has spent the majority of his time in the Washington, D.C., area since retiring from Congress.
His visits to Illinois have tapered off considerably since he left office, residents said, though he still owns a home in Plano.
"When he was still in Congress, he'd occasionally stop in and buy some pet food," Spada said. "I haven't seen him in a couple years."
But prosecutors said he was making trips back to the area frequently enough to make $100,000 payments every three months to "Individual A," the unidentified person in the indictment.
"It's very sad for something like that to come out," said Alan Sanders of Sandwich. "I speculate in my own mind and I don't like what I'm seeing."
For those who know Hastert, it's hard to come to grips with the allegations. "I've just got to think this goes well deep in his past and is something he's had to cover up for a long time," said Bulloch, who also played football for Hastert. "If it goes back to when he was a teacher, that's an awful long time and a terrible cross to bear. I kind of feel sorry for him."