By MICHAEL TARM
CHICAGO (AP) — A newly unveiled indictment against former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert accuses the Illinois Republican of agreeing to pay $3.5 million in hush money to keep a person from the town where he was a longtime high school teacher silent about “prior misconduct.” But it offers few hints about a central question: What was the alleged wrongdoing?
The concise federal grand jury indictment handed down Thursday accuses Hastert, who once was second in line to the U.S. presidency, of agreeing to pay the money to a person identified in the document only as “Individual A,” to “compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against” that person.
It notes that Hastert, 73, was a high school teacher and coach from 1965 to 1981 in suburban Yorkville, about 50 miles west of Chicago. It goes on to say Individual A has been a resident of Yorkville, and has known Hastert most of Individual A’s life, but doesn’t describe their relationship.
Legal experts say the fact that federal prosecutors noted Hastert’s tenure in Yorkville in the indictment’s first few sentences strongly suggests some connection between the allegations and that time and place.
“Notice the teacher and coach language,” said Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor and head of the Chicago office of the investigation firm Kroll. “Feds don’t put in language like that unless it’s relevant.”
The indictment charges Hastert with one count of evading bank regulations by withdrawing $952,000 in increments of less than $10,000 to skirt reporting requirements. He also is charged with one count of lying to the FBI about the reason for the unusual withdrawals.
Each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Hastert did not return email and phone messages from The Associated Press seeking comment on the allegations. Hastert, who had worked as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., since shortly after he left Congress in 2007, resigned from Dickstein Shapiro LLC, a spokesman for the lobbying and law firm said Thursday.
A statement from the U.S. attorney’s office announcing the indictment said Hastert will be ordered to appear for arraignment. The date was not immediately set.
The indictment alleges Hastert withdrew a total of around $1.7 million in cash from various bank accounts from 2010 to 2014, then provided the money to Individual A.
The indictment says Hastert agreed to the payments after multiple meetings in 2010. It says that “during at least one of the meetings, Individual A and defendant discussed past misconduct by defendant against Individual A that had occurred years earlier” and Hastert agreed to pay $3.5 million to keep it quiet. The indictment suggests he never paid the full amount.
The indictment says that between 2010 and 2012 Hastert made 15 cash withdrawals of $50,000 from bank accounts at Old Second Bank, People’s State Bank and Castle Bank and gave cash to Individual A around every six weeks.
Around April 2012, bank officials began questioning Hastert about the withdrawals, and starting in July of that year, Hastert reduced the amounts he withdrew at a time to less than $10,000 — apparently so they would not run afoul of a regulation designed to stop illicit activity such as money laundering, according to the indictment.
Among the focuses of the FBI investigation was whether Hastert, in the words of the indictment, was “the victim of a criminal extortion related to, among other matters, his prior positions in government.” The court document does not elaborate.
Legal experts said extortion cases can be tricky.
In mulling over whom to charge, prosecutors often must decide whether the person being extorted or the person doing the extorting is most victimized, said Chicago-based attorney and former federal prosecutor Phil Turner.
“In most instances you would view someone being extorted as the victim because they are being shaken down,” he said. “But prosecutors have enormous discretion and, in some instance, may see the person doing the extortion as a greater victim. Those are factors that can be weighed.”
Investigators questioned Hastert on Dec. 8, 2014, and he lied about why he had been withdrawing so much money at a time, saying he did it because he didn’t trust the banking system, the indictment alleges.
“Yeah, … I kept the cash. That’s what I am doing,” it quotes Hastert as saying.
Hastert, who also maintains a home in the Chicago suburb of Plano several miles northwest of Yorkville, was a little-known lawmaker from suburban Chicago when chosen to succeed conservative Newt Gingrich as speaker. Hastert was picked after favored Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston resigned following his admission of several sexual affairs.
As speaker, Hastert pushed President George W. Bush’s legislative agenda, helping pass a massive tax cut and expanding Medicare prescription drug benefits.
He retired from Congress in 2007 after eight years as speaker, making him the longest-serving Republican House speaker. He was second in line to the presidency during those years after the vice president.
David Corwin of Yorkville said his son, Scott, wrestled for Hastert in high school, then later became a wrestling coach himself.
“You won’t get anyone to say anything bad about him out here,” said David Corwin. “Everybody loved him. The kids loved him and they still do.”
Illinois has a long history of politicians getting in legal trouble.
Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. served a year and a half for illegally spending $750,000 in campaign funds on furs, vacations and other luxury items. Two successive governors in the 2000s, Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich, were convicted on corruption charges.
In the Hastert case, it’s not clear whether the money was paid in relation to his former position in government. Hastert started making the payments to the person in about 2010, according to the indictment.
AP writers Kerry Lester in Springfield, Illinois, and Don Babwin and Sophie Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.
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