CHICAGO » Dennis Hastert, the Republican who for eight years presided over the House and was second in the line of succession to the presidency, was sentenced today to more than a year in prison in a hush-money case that revealed accusations he sexually abused teenagers while coaching high school wrestling.
The case makes the former speaker one of the highest-ranking American politicians ever sentenced to prison. The visibly angry judge repeatedly rebuked the 74-year-old before issuing the 15-month sentence, telling him that his abuse devastated the lives of victims and would probably make it harder than ever for parents to trust other adults with their children.
“‘If Denny Hastert could do it, anyone could do it,’” U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin said. “Nothing is more stunning than to have the words ‘serial child molester’ and ‘speaker of the House’ in the same sentence.”
As he did for much of the hearing, Hastert sat unmoving in a wheelchair, peering over the top of his glasses, his hands folded before him.
Earlier this month, prosecutors went into graphic detail about the sex-abuse allegations, even describing how Hastert would sit in a recliner in the locker room with a direct view of the showers. The victims, prosecutors said, were boys between 14 and 17. Hastert was in his 20s and 30s.
When the judge asked if Hastert wanted to make a statement, Hastert pushed himself up, grabbed a walker and moved slowly to a podium.
“I am deeply ashamed to be standing here,” he said, reading from a statement. “I know why I am here … I mistreated some of the athletes that I coached.”
He added: “They looked up to me, and I took advantage of them.”
Hastert pleaded guilty last fall to violating banking law as he sought to pay $3.5 million to someone referred to in court papers only as Individual A to keep the sex abuse secret.
The judge devoted many of his remarks to describing how Hastert lied to FBI agents when they first approached him about the massive cash withdrawals. Hastert told investigators that Individual A was making a bogus claim of sex abuse to extort him for money.
“Accusing Individual A of extortion was unconscionable,” Durkin said. “He was a victim (of abuse) decades ago and you tried to make him a victim again.”
Prosecutors have described the payments as something akin to an out-of-court settlement. Individual A wanted to bring in lawyers and put the agreement in writing, but it was Hastert, authorities said, who refused to involve anyone else.
Hastert, the judge said, thought he could use his elevated status to make investigators believe his lie.
“If he had told the truth, I’m not sure we would be here today,” Durkin said about Hastert. “Instead, you lied and here we are.”
While the maximum sentence available for the banking violation was five years in prison, federal guidelines recommended probation to six months behind bars. Judges rarely go outside the guidelines and usually do so only when the behavior underlying the crime — in this case sex abuse — is especially egregious.
In addition to the prison term, the judge also ordered Hastert to undergo sex-offender treatment, spend two years on supervised release from prison and pay a $250,000 fine to a crime victims’ fund.
Hastert abused at least four students throughout his years at Yorkville High School about 45 miles southwest of Chicago, authorities said. He will report to prison at a later date.
Before Hastert spoke, a former wrestler delivered a statement. Taking a deep breath as he started describing what he called his “dark secret,” 53-year-old Scott Cross frequently stopped and struggled to regain his composure. A court official walked up and handed him a box of tissues.
“I looked up to coach Hastert,” he said. After Hastert abused him in the locker room, he said: “I was devastated. I felt very alone.”
He said he sought professional help and had trouble sleeping as a result of the abuse.
Hastert sat a few feet from the man, turning his head slightly — but never looking directly at him.
In his remarks, the former congressman never referred to sexual abuse. When he stopped reading, the judge asked him directly: Did Hastert, in fact, abuse the wrestler who spoke in court?
“I don’t remember that,” Hastert responded. “I accept his statement.”
Moments before the former wrestler spoke, a woman who says her brother was sexually abused by Hastert told the courtroom that her sibling felt “betrayed, ashamed and embarrassed.”
Jolene Burdge said Hastert abused her brother, Stephen Reinboldt, throughout his years at Yorkville High, where Hastert was a history teacher and coach from 1965 to 1981. Reinboldt died of AIDS in 1995.
“When a man is sexually assaulted, it means they weren’t strong enough to fight back,” she said. “He wasn’t strong enough.” She added, “You took his innocence and turned it against him.”
She turned toward Hastert and said, “Don’t be a coward, Mr. Hastert. Tell the truth.”
By helping to reveal the sex abuse, she added, “I hope I have been your worst nightmare.”
The judge also asked Hastert directly if he had abused Reinboldt. Hastert first answered: “That was a different situation, sir.” After Hastert consulted his lawyer, the judge repeated the question. Hastert paused and said, “Yes.”
Defense attorneys were seeking probation on grounds that Hastert had already paid a high price in disgrace. They also cited his health, saying a blood infection nearly killed him in November and that a stroke has limited his mobility.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Block called Hastert’s conduct “horrendous.” But because of the statute of limitations, he could only be charged with a financial crime related to the payments he was making.
Even though the banking charge was comparatively minor, he said, society was better off now that Hastert had been unmasked.
“The defendant has been exposed for who he is,” Block told the court.
Defense attorney Thomas Green alluded several times to Hastert’s mental state, saying he wasn’t sure if Hastert fully comprehended what he had done.
“Aspects of Mr. Hastert life have been compartmentalized … walled off,” he said.
He urged the judge to take into consideration the “entire arc” of Hastert’s life, including his efforts to seek tougher drug laws. Hastert, he said, “is the single most important leader in the fight against drugs.”
The attorney noted that 41 letters of support were forwarded to the judge, but that dozens of letters were withdrawn after old friends and acquaintances learned they would be put on the public record.
“The withdrawn letters exemplify … the abandonment” of Hastert, he said.
At the end of the hearing, Durkin paused, looked around the room and said the case had been “horrible” for the victims, their families and the nation as whole.
Before standing up and walking away, he said, “I never want to see a case like this again.”