Patriot Act that Hastert heralded helped bring his downfall
In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, House Speaker Dennis Hastert "led the charge" in getting passage of the Patriot Act, former President George W. Bush commented a few years later.
Now, Hastert faces a sentencing hearing Wednesday because of an investigation that prosecutors say started in part because of the Patriot Act.
In that way, the law could be both one of the biggest accomplishments of Hastert's government career and a marker of one of his lowest lows as he prepares for a potential prison term. He is accused of withdrawing money from his bank in such a way as to try to avoid federal detection.
The Patriot Act was a swift reaction to the 2001 terrorist attacks, giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies unprecedented capabilities to foil plots against America in the wake of the national tragedy.
President George W. Bush, appearing in 2006 in Chicago for a high-profile fundraiser with Hastert, praised the speaker's leadership and lauded him for approval of the act.
"By the way," Bush was quoted as saying at the fundraiser, "the speaker led the charge in making sure the House passed the Patriot Act the first time and then reauthorized it."
"I see the threat; the speaker sees the threat," Bush said.
Now, Hastert has pleaded guilty to violating banking laws in order to try to pay an unnamed person $3.5 million in hush money to cover up misconduct from his time as a teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville High School, where he worked from 1965 to 1981.
|View our interactive timeline. Click here to see an interactive timeline of Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert's odyssey from being the longest-serving GOP speaker in history to being the focus of a yearlong federal court case.|
Hastert was alerted four years ago this month that his bank withdrawals had to be reported when a bank supervisor said he "needed to understand his transactions pursuant to the Patriot Act," according to court documents.
And in the same filing describing Hastert's discussion with a bank official about the Patriot Act: "Defendant stated that he was aware of the law, but that the Patriot Act was just for terrorism and he (defendant) was not a terrorist."
Indeed, lawmakers in Hastert's House approved the law in response to terrorist threats.
But the broad scope of the law applies to other criminal investigations, and tracking big cash withdrawals is a way for authorities to discover wrongdoing, said Juliet Sorensen, a former assistant U.S. attorney and law professor at Northwestern University.
"One key component of most federal criminal investigations is financial flows," Sorensen said.
Ultimately, Hastert's guilty plea to those banking charges will be the focus of Judge Thomas Durkin's sentencing decision.
But a man Hastert is alleged to have sexually abused, known as Individual D, and the sister of a deceased man who also claimed to be a victim are planning to give testimony at the sentencing hearing. Their comments could be aggravating factors that add to the former speaker's sentence.
His attorneys have asked for probation in part because of Hastert's failing health. Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, former Illinois Attorney General Tyrone C. Fahner, four other former U.S. congressmen and state politicians are among 41 people whose letters in support of Hastert were placed in his court file on Friday.
Prosecutors have recommended a prison sentence of no more than six months, though under statute Hastert could be sentenced to up to five years.
"Mr. Hastert's fall from grace has been swift and devastating," a filing from his attorneys ahead of his sentencing hearing reads. "He knows that, for the rest of his life, wherever he goes, the public warmth and affection that he previously received will be replaced by hostility and isolation."