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Wrestling propelled Hastert’s career, and provided opportunity for abuse

WASHINGTON >> When calls for his removal from office reverberated through the capital a decade ago, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert struggled to explain why he had not aggressively investigated allegations that a Florida lawmaker had sent flirtatious messages to a teenage boy who had served as a House page.

At that perilous moment, an impassioned group of supporters stepped forward to speak up on Hastert’s behalf: wrestling coaches.

“Denny Hastert is a good and honorable man — and one of wrestling’s own,” Leo Kocher, the wrestling coach at the University of Chicago, wrote in late 2006 in a letter distributed to high school and college coaches.

“The wrestling community must reach as many people as it can through calling talk radio, letters to the editor, and any other way in which public opinion can be moved,” he wrote. “Denny Hastert is one of the finest people to ever hold membership in the wrestling community.”

Wrestling gave Hastert stature in his hometown, Yorkville, Ill., and propelled a political career that culminated in one of the most powerful jobs in Washington. But the sport he loved also gave him proximity and opportunity for what prosecutors say was a pattern of sexual abuse of boys while serving as their high school coach.

Now, as a federal judge prepares to sentence Hastert next week on charges that he illegally made secret payments to cover up the misconduct — a former wrestler who said Hastert abused him decades ago is expected to speak at the hearing — the weight of his transgressions is falling hard on former colleagues and constituents. But it is the close-knit wrestling community that is struggling most to come to terms with its sense of betrayal.

“It is just hard to find the words; it is just such an awful thing,” said Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, who has known Hastert for nearly 20 years. “It runs so contrary to the dedicated support that Denny gave to the wrestling community over so many years.”

On Capitol Hill, Hastert was known as “Coach,” and one Republican aide attributed his rise to speaker in 1998 to an ability to “bring the team together in the locker room and motivate them to get things done.”

Hastert hired former wrestlers as top aides. For more than a decade, he used clout in Congress to fight Title IX, the landmark federal law that requires equitable opportunities for men and women to participate in college sports, arguing that it was hurting wrestling by forcing cutbacks. He used campaign funds to support wrestling causes. He intervened in a dozen cases to try to save college wrestling programs.

“Who would have guessed that a wrestling coach from Kendall County in Illinois would be the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House of Representatives in all our nation’s history?” Hastert said, announcing his retirement from Congress in 2007 in front of the county courthouse in his hometown, where three decades earlier he and his state championship wrestling team had been honored with a parade.

Hastert, who is 74 and suffered a stroke in November, has pleaded guilty to violating bank reporting requirements, but was not charged with abuse, for which statutes of limitation would have prohibited criminal charges.

Prosecutors for the first time this month provided details of the abuse of at least four wrestling team members, one as young as 14, that they said occurred on training tables, in a locker room and in a hotel room. One of the wrestlers recalled how Hastert put a reclining chair in view of the showers in the locker room, where Hastert sat “while the boys showered.” The “known acts,” the prosecutors said, consisted of “intentional touching of minors’ groin area and genitals or oral sex with a minor.”

His lawyer, Thomas Green, said Hastert acknowledged committing “transgressions” decades ago, for which, the lawyer said, Hastert was “profoundly sorry.”

Hastert first took up wrestling in high school, bulking up while carrying 100-pound feed bags from the farm supply business his father operated in rural Illinois. After graduating from Wheaton College, a nearby Christian liberal arts school where he was on the wrestling team, Hastert became a teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville High School.

He built the Yorkville Foxes into a powerhouse program that won 11 straight conference titles, produced eight Illinois state champion wrestlers and, in 1976, the Illinois team championship — an accomplishment Hastert has described as “among the finest moments of my life.”

“I love this sport and the kids I coached,” Hastert told a congressional committee years later.

Local power brokers saw political appeal in his coaching success, encouraging him to run for the state legislature, and then Congress.

Sometime after his arrival in Washington, Hastert named Bryan L. Harbin, one of his former wrestlers, to his staff. Harbin, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, continued to serve as an aide to Hastert for most of his congressional tenure.

As Hastert rose through the House Republican leadership, he also amassed substantial campaign funds, and he used some of that money to support the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and the wrestling program at Manchester College in Indiana, run by a longtime friend and fellow wrestler, Thomas S. Jarman, whom Hastert also later hired onto his congressional staff. Jarman did not respond to messages seeking comment.

When the Republicans took control of the House in 1994, Hastert was named chief deputy whip. From his new position of power, he began a yearslong campaign against Title IX.

Hastert wrote letters to the Department of Education, called for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office, and repeatedly introduced legislation to curb cutbacks to wrestling.

“It really disturbs me when people claim that it is fine to cut opportunities for men to eradicate discrimination,” Hastert testified in May 1995 at a House hearing that he had helped set up to examine the impact of the 1972 law.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association called Hastert’s 1998 legislative proposal an “unparalleled federal intrusion into the decision-making and budgetary process of the nation’s colleges and universities.” The provision, which would have required colleges to report annually if they had any plans to cut funding for any athletic team, was ultimately cut from the education bill.

But Hastert did not give up. He joined an effort organized by the National Wrestling Coaches Association to challenge universities or colleges that cut funding for the sport, even appearing before the Pennsylvania state legislature in 2007 to push for more funding for wrestling programs there. By this point, Hastert, a hero to the sport, had been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

While in Congress, Hastert also was an outspoken advocate for severe punishment of anyone convicted of abusing minors. He helped push legislation in 2006 that required states to expand sex offender registers, as he declared that “protecting our children from Internet predators and child exploitation enterprises are just as high a priority as securing our border from terrorists.”

The ties to wrestling continued even after Hastert left Congress. Two of his three staff members in the House Office of the Former Speaker — an office he set up in Yorkville funded by the federal government — were former wrestlers.

Wheaton College opened the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy. Its director, starting in 2010, was Seth Norton, the former head wrestling coach at Wheaton College.

Hastert also set up a consulting firm working with an Illinois businessman, David John, a former Wheaton College wrestler who had worked with Hastert to pressure the college president to reverse a plan to eliminate funding for the school’s wrestling program.

The former speaker frequently attended a wrestling tournament that John ran at Wheaton College, and John also saw him at the national collegiate wrestling championship every March.

“He absolutely loved being in that environment,” John said.

In 2013, Hastert returned to the state Capitol in Springfield, delivering a valedictory on his career on the state House floor, where he also urged legislators there to pass a resolution condemning the decision by International Olympic Committee to drop wrestling as an Olympic sport after the 2016 games.

“I can only look at the opportunity I had when I was a young man,” Hastert said, just before the Illinois House voted to pass the Olympic resolution. “I had a coach and an opportunity to perform.”

Since the allegations of abuse became public last year, former wrestling champions, coaches and parents of student wrestlers are still trying to reconcile the painful new images now associated with Hastert’s name.

The Denny Hastert Yorkville Invitational annual wrestling tournament has already been renamed, as has the center at Wheaton College that was named after him. A campaign has started to have Hastert removed from the Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Kocher, the University of Chicago coach, declined to comment when asked about his letter defending Hastert from a decade ago. But other coaches said the turn of events had caused tremendous sadness and confusion.

Tony Houle, who was Hastert’s assistant wrestling coach at Yorkville High from 1975 until Hastert moved on to politics, said the entire situation was “mystifying” to him, in part because of how devoted to and focused on the sport Hastert always seemed to be.

Larry Kristoff, a two-time Olympic wrestler and a former Southern Illinois University wrestling coach, who worked closely with Hastert for decades on wrestling causes, said he was similarly confused, and hurt, by what had happened.

“I haven’t come to terms with it — I am not sure there is a way I ever can, really,” said Kristoff, 73. “Wrestling can get over a lot of things. One issue won’t tumble it. It is more the man himself — wrestling has been a part of his whole life.”

Federal prosecutors had a somewhat different take on the matter, saying that Hastert’s career is “marred by stunning hypocrisy.”

“While defendant achieved great success, reaping all the benefits that went with it,” Zachary T. Fardon, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, wrote in a court filing this month, “these boys struggled, and all are still struggling now with what defendant did to them.”

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