The news stopped the Washington political class cold:
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker in history, was indicted late Thursday by the Justice Department, accused of lying to the FBI about a series of bank withdrawals he made just below the $10,000 federal threshold to avoid bank reporting requirements.
The payments made to someone identified in the indictment as “Individual A” go back several years.
“It’s stunning, and I don’t have any good information,” said John Feehery, Hastert’s former spokesman. Calls to Hastert’s former colleagues and political allies produced similar responses, shock at the charge that the former speaker had agreed to provide, according to the indictment, “$3.5 million in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.”
The word “blackmail” does not appear in the indictment, but reading between the lines, it appears something nefarious was at play.
Hastert is not indicted for whatever the underlying offense is—that’s left to the imagination—he’s in trouble for lying under oath to the FBI about the bank withdrawals, which were made to someone he has apparently known for a long time.
Whoever Individual A is, it’s not rocket science to figure out he’s got something big on Hastert.
And that something is worth $3.5 million to the former speaker.
The indictment says that from 2010 to 2014, Hastert withdrew approximately $1.7 million in cash from various bank accounts, providing the money to “Individual A.”
Then in July 2012, Hastert started withdrawing money in increments slightly less than $10,000, allegedly to evade the bank’s reporting as required by law for withdrawals of $10,000 or more.
When these transactions caught the attention of the FBI, agents met with Hastert in December of last year.
He lied to them—telling them he didn’t trust the banks—triggering the indictment. Washington being Washington, there is of course speculation about what this deep, dark secret is that it was worth $3.5 million to Hastert to keep it quiet.
A former Republican congressional aide put it this way: “He opened himself up to blackmail and paid an enormous amount of money. Whatever the underlying cause, it must be so abhorrent to the people who elected him, or it was illegal—or both.”
Late Thursday evening, a spokesman for Dickstein Shapiro, where Hastert, 73, has been working as a lobbyist, announced that the former speaker had resigned.
Keeping in mind that an indictment is not proof of guilt, it is only charges, the various scenarios being floated about what could be so ruinous for Hastert are all couched in comments about what a great guy he is, and sadness at the apparent unraveling of his storied career. He was always a humble guy, an accidental speaker, stepping in after Newt Gingrich resigned and Representative Bob Livingston, the heir apparent, confessed to an extramarital affair.
“For what it’s worth, every interaction I’ve had with him, professionally and personally, he’s been very decent, very candid,” says a Democratic lobbyist. “Early on in Boehner’s tenure, he would talk about ‘those Tea Party a-holes,’ how impossible it was for John Boehner.”
When Boehner repeatedly invoked the so-called “Hastert rule,” requiring a majority of the Republicans to support legislation, thereby stalling action on immigration reform and other big-ticket items, Hastert disavowed his own rule, said it was a nice goal but not a rigid requirement. “He was a Jerry Ford Republican,” said the Democratic lobbyist, meaning it as a compliment.
The way this story is cast about past wrongdoing and “prior misconduct”—the phrase in the indictment—this is something that Individual A has been blackmailing Hastert about for some time and the actions could go back to before Hastert entered politics.
He was elected to the House in 1980. Before that he was a high school teacher and wrestling coach, humble beginnings often invoked in his unlikely rise to become the longest serving Republican House Speaker.
In announcing this indictment, the FBI must know the identity of Individual A, and that Hastert for some time has been paying off this person. As more information becomes known, this could be just the beginning of where this story goes.
One has to assume Individual A has irrefutable proof of whatever acts Hastert has paid so much to conceal. Each count in the indictment for evading federal reporting requirements and lying to the FBI carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and $250,000 fine.