Jason Meisner and Jeff CoenContact Reporters
It was nearly 17 years ago that Dennis Hastert stood in the U.S. Capitol and was sworn in as the speaker of the House with his right hand raised.
On Wednesday in Chicago, Hastert took an oath of a different kind, swearing in a federal courtroom to tell the truth as he pleaded guilty to a felony count of illegally structuring cash withdrawals to evade bank currency-reporting requirements.
“Guilty, sir,” Hastert, 73, said in a hoarse voice as he leaned toward a microphone and acknowledged in the packed courtroom that he had made hush-money payments to cover up wrongdoing in his past.
The guilty plea marked a dramatic downfall for Hastert, one of Illinois’ most powerful Republicans who rose from humble beginnings as a small-town high school teacher to the third-highest political office in the country.
But while Hastert is now a convicted felon, the 20-minute hearing left more questions than answers. The 15-page plea agreement with prosecutors contains almost identical language as the indictment issued in May. It does not identify the person Hastert had agreed to pay $3.5 million to keep quiet or provide any new details on the wrongdoing Hastert was trying to cover up.
Under federal guidelines, Hastert faces a sentence ranging from probation to up to six months in prison. The judge, however, said that despite the agreement between parties, he is free to hand out a term of up to the statutory maximum of five years behind bars. He set sentencing for Feb. 29
Hastert’s attorney will almost certainly seek probation or possibly house arrest in lieu of prison.
In an emailed statement after the hearing, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon hinted that more details about Hastert’s wrongdoing would come out at sentencing. Prosecutors intend to “provide the court with relevant information about (Hastert’s) background and the charged offenses” so the judge “can impose an appropriate sentence taking into account all relevant factors in the case,” Fardon said.
The bombshell indictment alleged that Hastert was making the withdrawals as part of an agreement to pay a total of $3.5 million to a longtime acquaintance, identified only as Individual A, to cover up wrongdoing from years ago.
Though the indictment only hints at the alleged wrongdoing, federal law enforcement sources have told the Tribune that Hastert was paying to cover up the sexual abuse of a student when Hastert was a wrestling coach and teacher at Yorkville High School.