Dennis Hastert's next move: Plea deal or fight the charges?

Updated 6/11/2015 9:39 PM
  • Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert has tough decisions to make about the future of his federal case.

    Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert has tough decisions to make about the future of his federal case. Associated Press File Photo

The indignity of a first court appearance behind him, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert has a big decision to make.

The answer could be painfully difficult for everyone involved, and the consequences for Hastert and others could be vast.

Will the longtime suburban congressman go to trial to try to clear his name and disprove the charges against him?

Or will he strike a plea deal with federal prosecutors and avoid as much of a potentially messy court battle as possible?

Hastert pleaded not guilty this week, but that won't be the end of the story.

Ricardo Meza, a partner at Greensfelder, Hemker and Gale, helped explain. Meza, of Arlington Heights, is a former assistant U.S. attorney and was most recently Illinois' executive inspector general.

Now, Meza said, prosecutors and Hastert's legal team will probably talk about where the case will go.

"I suspect there will be discussions," he said.

Keep the secrets?

On the one hand, Hastert could plead guilty, opting to avoid a trial on the charges that he lied to the FBI about trying to hide cash withdrawals, all in the name of covering for what the indictment calls "past misconduct."

In this option, Meza says, Hastert perhaps could avoid any further revelations about the motivations for those cash payments. Federal law enforcement sources have told The Associated Press those motivations involve sex from a long time ago when Hastert taught and coached at Yorkville High School.

Keeping more details out of the public record could be a good motivator.

"The government doesn't have to prove motive," Meza said. "The plea doesn't necessarily require the defendant to disclose why he did those things."

Clear his name?

But a guilty plea doesn't keep the media from poking around further, and reporters from across the country have been flooding Yorkville for weeks.

Plus, Meza said, pleading guilty to lying to the FBI is no easy call. That comes with serious penalties and a permanent black mark of a conviction. Both charges carry a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

A trial could allow Hastert to publicly fight the charges and prevail, clearing his name in the eyes of the law and avoiding legal penalties. A formerly powerful figure at the top of the political world might not be inclined to just roll over.

"Neither of these are small admissions," Meza said of the charges. "Especially a defendant of that stature who has a reputation."

A message left with Hastert's attorney wasn't returned.

Not all shut down

July 1 looms large in Illinois as the day the state won't be able to spend money anymore if Gov. Bruce Rauner and lawmakers don't agree to a budget deal.

Comptroller Leslie Munger said this week that most of the state's payments to local governments will go on.

That's notable because mayors have been yelling for months about proposed cuts to their share of state income taxes.

Illinois law sets out how much the state is supposed to transfer to them, and Munger said those transfers will keep happening.

"We will continue to pay," she said.

Most everything else besides debt payments, though, will be tied up. You'll hear more about this as the weeks wear on.

Who would get paid?

Lawmakers' salaries also are on the list of the payments that wouldn't stop in a government shutdown.

State Reps. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, and Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, have filed a resolution in Springfield that would call on lawmakers to decline their salaries if Illinois misses making payroll in July for state workers.

"We believe that it would be inappropriate for members of the General Assembly to receive their salaries in a timely manner when all other State employees are not being paid on time," the resolution reads.

It doesn't carry the weight of law and doesn't stop salary payments but could pressure some officials to decline their pay if things get bad.

The sign

The most recent web video for U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth's campaign for Senate largely relies on a speech she made to The City Club of Chicago, and the video includes images of the club's signage behind her.

One board member thinks that's a problem because the nonprofit group doesn't endorse candidates and its endorsement shouldn't be implied in web videos.

"The City Club of Chicago is not a prop for commercials, it is Illinois' premiere public affairs forum," board member and Republican Chris Robling posted online.

Duckworth's camp says it hasn't been asked by The City Club to take down the video.

Ramey back in

Republican Randy Ramey, a former member of the Illinois House from Carol Stream, says he's looking to get into the race for the state Senate seat now held by Democrat Tom Cullerton of Villa Park.

"I want to be back in," he said.

Cullerton says he's running for Congress.

Ramey has started moving toward a run and wants to hear from Rauner that the governor is a supporter.

"He's got $20 million. I don't want to be his enemy," Ramey said.

"I think I can talk him out of anyone else," he said.

Ramey ran for Senate in the Republican primary in 2012 against incumbent Carol Pankau but lost. Pankau eventually lost to Cullerton in the general election.

Ramey was formerly chairman of the DuPage County GOP and spent about eight years in the Illinois House. He said some have expressed concern about his 2011 DUI, but Ramey says he took responsibility for the mistake and didn't hide from it.

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