Today is the first day of the rest of Denny Hastert’s life.
From here on out it will be like this: hordes of reporters posted up near courtrooms, waiting for a glimpse of that favorite media stock character—a powerful man fallen from grace.
That was the case today at the Everett M. Dirksen Federal Courthouse, where the former Speaker of the House was arraigned on charges that he purposely avoided federal reporting requirements when he pulled gobs of cash out his bank account to allegedly pay off someone he had a sexual relationship during his time as a high school wrestling coach. His time in court today was short, a legal formality turned media circus, and Hastert’s appearances came in humbling snippets as cameras clicked and questions were hurled.
In Judge Thomas Durkin’s chambers, Hastert joined scores of other alleged criminals in being witness to the power of the federal government as it exists in impressive courtrooms. The wood panels, the Great Seal, the judge’s orders. After entering with a haunch that has recently come back into the memory of many Americans, Hastert took a seat and eventually pleaded not guilty to the charges he faces.
It was quiet enough to hear the gears turning the hands of a brass clock, purposeful silence that aids in making decisions about the rest of people’s lives.
Hastert has now come out of hiding, forced into the public eye by the long arm of the law which has the unique ability to reach up and grab even those on high. Tuesday marked the first time Hastert was required to come back down to earth.
He probably thought he had gotten away with it when, in 2007, he gave a farewell speech that like a lot of other politicians’ words has come back to haunt him.
“It’s popular these days to ask political figures what mistakes they’ve made, where they have failed,” he said back then. “As a former history teacher, I know such analysis is best tempered by time and reflection. And that it is best left to others.”
The others are here. And the time is now.
But it almost didn’t happen. With cash flowing to a still-unnamed person, Hastert’s secret was safe.
Whatever damage he did to this individual was apparently dangerous enough to require the payments, which totaled $1.7 million over several years.
The alleged victim, who Hastert agreed to a pay over $3.5 million in total, has never been identified. With a tenure spanning three decades, Hastert was in contact with hundreds of students during his time at Yorkville High School, making the victim pool large enough to keep a dozen reporters busy. Whatever happened between Hastert and the person or persons came with enough concrete evidence for authorities to ignore what could be extortion carried out against the former Speaker. The facts of the government’s case against Hastert, however, are readily available.
In a little less than two years, Hastert made 15 withdrawals of $50,000, which was then used as hush money to pay for the silence of Individual A, authorities contend. Hastert then reduced his withdrawals to less than $10,000, the amount that banks are required by law to report to the federal government. But it was too late. With the IRS and FBI already on Hastert’s tail thanks to the $50,000 withdrawals, Hastert had to speak to law enforcement. When he did so, he told the feds that he was pulling out cash because he did not feel safe keeping his money in the banking system.
“Yeah … I kept the cash,” he told authorities. “That’s what I’m doing.”
The FBI didn’t buy it, and took its findings to a grand jury. What remains unclear is how they found out about the deal with Individual A in the first place, but in a legal sense that ceased to matter as soon as Hastert was indicted on the charges.
Here is the technical version:
Hastert is accused of violating Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 1001(a)(2)—i.e. lying to the government—and Title 31 of the United States Code, Section 5324(a)(3), or evading federal reporting requirements.
The former carries with it a maximum penalty five years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both, and the latter could send Hastert away for five and the same amount of fine.
So, in English, the worst-case scenario, then, Hastert could be required to pay $500,000 in fines and serve 10 years in prison.
For now, he is free on $4,500 bond, and it’s up to Hastert now to show up for his next court date. When that will be depends on what happens come 4 p.m. Thursday. That’s the deadline for both sides to determine whether they think Durkin should preside over the case, despite his admitted association with Hastert, his son, Ethan, a former law partner of the judge’s, and, finally, Durkin’s relation to the Republican Party. His brother, Jim Durkin, is the top Republican in the Illinois House of Representatives.
Even with the new scrutiny, Hastert’s life remained relatively intact on Tuesday—with a few exceptions.
He’ll now have to give a sample of his DNA, remove his sons’ firearms from his home, hand over his passport to the U.S. Marshalls and agree to abide by the other routine conditions of release that every criminal, from the lowly purse-snatcher to the arrogant crime lord, has had to submit themselves to. The former Speaker of the House is out on bail, and he has the U.S. Marshalls to answer to.
Hastert entered through the main door of the courtroom after walking through a hallway that had just minutes before been cleared of reporters.
He is accused, but he is still protected, still privileged.
Now—rightfully or not—he is viewed through a lens of guilt, and every reporter in the wood pews of Durkin’s court was peering for a glimpse it on his face. Sitting on the business side of the bar in a court of law has a tendency to make people look more nefarious than they perhaps are, and Hastert didn’t exactly look like the gentle politician he spent a career becoming. Whatever yesses and nos he spoke Tuesday were barely audible.
He may still be powerful, but he certainly didn’t come off as proud.
The majority of the comments made in court came from the judge himself, who addressed Hastert not as “Speaker Hastert,” as Thomas Green, the accused’s attorney did, but as “the defendant.”
Durkin laid out every possible conflict of interest that could affect his required impartiality.
In addition to his relations to the Hastert family, which include $1,500 in campaign contributions a decade ago to then-Speaker, there was an email sent in the mid-1990s to an attorney representing the feds in their prosecution of Hastert.
“I am not naive enough to think that a reasonable person would not question my impartiality,” he said.
So, both sides will decide for themselves whether Durkin should preside over the case.
In the meantime, the spectacle will continue.
Hastert’s political career—and indeed his life—have been reduced to avoiding a crowd of media vultures in downtown Chicago.
As Hastert prepared to leave the courtroom, the U.S. Marshalls again cleared the hallway of anyone who might bother the former hometown hero—allowing him to be alone, if only for a moment.