Dennis Hastert, former House speaker, pleads guilty

In this June 9, 2015 file photo, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert departs the federal courthouse in Chicago.
In this June 9, 2015 file photo, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert departs the federal courthouse in Chicago. AP

Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to trying to evade federal banking laws, telling a district judge here that he had known what he was doing was wrong.

The plea brought a quick, quiet finish to a proceeding that had startled many in Washington who once knew Hastert as one of the nation’s most powerful leaders, and in Yorkville, Illinois, his rural hometown, who remembered Hastert as their winning high school wrestling coach.

Prosecutors said they believed that federal guidelines called for a sentence of up to six months in prison. But the judge, Thomas M. Durkin of U.S. District Court, indicated that he would not decide on Hastert’s punishment before reading a presentencing report. Sentencing was scheduled for Feb. 29.

Hastert told the judge why he had structured bank withdrawals in an attempt to avoid detection. “I didn’t want them to know how I would spend the money,” he said. Asked whether he understood at the time that his conduct was wrong, he said yes.

As part of the plea agreement, Hastert, 73, pleaded guilty to one of the two federal charges against him in an indictment announced in May. Each of those charges – structuring large bank withdrawals to avoid detection and making false statements to federal investigators about those withdrawals – carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Dressed in a dark suit and tie, Hastert arrived at the federal courthouse more than an hour before his hearing was scheduled to begin. He made his way through the public entrance, went through a security screening and was escorted by several federal marshals past a line of TV cameras. He did not pause to answer questions.

The plea, which had been anticipated for weeks, allows Hastert to avoid a lengthy trial where details of long-ago events threatened to emerge. The guilty plea to a relatively technical-sounding violation seemed harmless in comparison with the damaging suggestions raised by the indictment and by some briefed on the investigation months ago.

The indictment accused Hastert of structuring cash withdrawals totaling $1.7 million in a way meant to avoid the notice of bank officials. Then when federal authorities asked about the withdrawals, he lied about them. Prosecutors said the money was being used to make up for past “misconduct” against a person the indictment described only as “Individual A.” The indictment said Hastert had eventually to pay $3.5 million to “compensate for and conceal” that misconduct.

Details were not addressed in court or in publicly filed legal documents, but two people briefed on the FBI inquiry said the money had gone toward covering up claims of sexual misconduct with a male student decades ago. Hastert was a coach and high school teacher from 1965 until 1981 in Yorkville. Hastert was not charged with sex crimes, which are covered by statutes of limitation. The former student, who remains unidentified, did not come forward publicly.

“The one thing this defendant clearly didn’t want to have was – essentially – his day in court,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor here who is not involved in this case. “He doesn’t want the reason for the structuring to come out. It seems that he spent $1.7 million or so to keep this secret, and his motivation now would seem to be keeping that secret.”

In Chicago, where corruption trials for public officials are painfully common, Hastert was only the latest in a series of officials to appear in this courthouse. Still, Dick Simpson, a political scientist and former Chicago alderman whose analysis of convictions since 1976 suggests that this is the most corrupt metropolitan region in the United States, said the remaining unknowns around Hastert’s case were unusual.

In the case of Jesse L. Jackson Jr., the former Democratic representative who pleaded guilty in 2013 to fraud, details were made public down to the campaign money he spent on a fedora that once belonged to Michael Jackson, on stuffed animals from Build-A-Bear and on an elk head from Montana. In the case of Rod R. Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor who is serving time in federal prison for corruption, recordings of his phone calls, in all their salty language, were played at his trial.

“Normally, you have to uncover the whole crime,” Simpson said.

For Hastert, who already seemed to have faded in political memory by the time of his indictment, the events were a puzzling coda to what had been an unlikely political career. Hastert, born into a family that ran a farm supply business, had been a small-town teacher before running for the Illinois House of Representatives.

He was elected to Congress in 1986, and suddenly found himself chosen as speaker of the House in 1999 in a moment of crisis for his Republican Party. Newt Gingrich had just stepped down, and the Republicans’ first choice to replace him, Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, gave up the position before he ever assumed it, acknowledging that he had carried on adulterous affairs. In the end, Hastert, known as a conciliatory leader who even some in Washington called “the coach,” was the longest-serving Republican speaker.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story by The Associated Press incorrectly reported that Hastert pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.