Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert Sentenced to 15 Months in Prison

Calling Hastert a “serial child molester,” a federal judge ignores pleas for leniency.

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert arriving at federal court for sentencingAP/Charles Rex Arbogast

Calling Dennis Hastert a “serial child molester,” a federal judge in Chicago today sentenced the former Republican House speaker to 15 months in prison, fined him $250,000, and ordered him to participate in a sex offender program.

Last year, Hastert pleaded guilty to a felony charge for violating federal banking laws designed to combat money laundering. The charge was related to his payment of hush money to cover up alleged sexual misconduct during his days as a gym teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville High School in Illinois. As part of Hastert’s plea agreement, another charge for lying to the FBI about his cash withdrawals was dropped. Hastert’s plea agreement had initially suggested he could end up with six months in prison, but Judge Thomas Durkin went beyond the sentencing recommendation after a lengthy exposition on Hastert’s child sexual abuse history.

A federal grand jury indicted Hastert last May for allegedly lying to the FBI after investigators questioned him about $1.7 million in withdrawals he made that violated federal reporting requirements that guard against money laundering. The indictment alleged that Hastert was using the cash to secretly pay off “Individual A,” a man believed to be a former student at Yorkville during the time Hastert taught there, between 1965 and 1981. According to the indictment, at one point in 2014 Hastert was delivering as much as $100,000 a month to the individual in question, whom he’d promised to pay $3.5 million to prevent the man from publicly disclosing Hastert’s past alleged sexual abuse. The scheme described in the indictment is perhaps one of the most unsophisticated Washington cover-ups in recent memory. When the FBI asked Hastert about the withdrawals, he claimed he just didn’t trust the American banking system—a strange excuse for a former member of Congress turned Washington lobbyist.

Hastert’s quest for leniency—he is said to be wheelchair bound and ill after suffering a stroke—has been supported by some of his former House colleagues, including former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who wrote letters to the judge attesting to Hastert’s good character. But since Hastert pleaded guilty, law enforcement officials have suggested the former congressman may have sexually abused as many as four people during his years as a wrestling coach.

One of those individuals, Scott Cross, now 53, gave emotional testimony at Hastert’s sentencing hearing about the “dark secret” he had kept since high school. Cross is the brother of former Illinois Republican House Leader Tom Cross. Hastert had asked Tom Cross for a letter supporting his campaign for a lighter sentence. Instead, Scott Cross came forward with his shocking story.

Through tears, Cross described an incident that occurred when he was 17 years old and on Hastert’s wrestling team. Cross was worried about getting his weight down for his senior year of competitions. According to WBBM News Radio in Chicago, Cross told the judge that Hastert told him a massage would help take the pounds off. Cross testified that Hastert gave him a massage, but then pulled down his pants and massaged his penis. “He sexually abused me,” Cross said. “I was alone in that locker room. I trusted him.”

Jolene Burdge, the sister of another of Hastert’s alleged victims, also testified. “I will always wonder if you are just sorry you got caught,” she told Hastert. Meanwhile, “Individual A,” whose demands for money led to Hastert’s indictment, has filed a civil suit against Hastert seeking payment of the rest of the $3.5 million he was promised.

In a statement to the court, Hastert apologized to his victims for his past conduct and to the government for lying. “I am deeply ashamed to be standing before you today,” he said, offering that he “mistreated” some of his athletes. “I am sorry to those I hurt. What I did was wrong. I regret it. I took advantage of them.”

Judge Durkin marveled at the spectacle before him. “Nothing is more stunning than having ‘serial child molester’ and ‘speaker of the House’ in the same sentence,” he told Hastert. He also rejected arguments from Hastert’s lawyers that the former speaker was infirm and clueless about much of what allegedly happened with Individual A. “At the time this was going on, sir, you were a lobbyist,” he told Hastert. Even so, Durkin acknowledged that he was limited in how far he could go in sentencing Hastert, in large part because he’d only been charged with banking crimes. “I can’t sentence you as a child molester,” Durkin lamented.

“This is a horrible case,” Durkin noted before adjourning. “I don’t ever want to see a case like this again.”

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