Guest Editorial: Hastert deserves prison time

Chicago Tribune
April 24
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Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert will face the music today. Can U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin name that tune in zero-to-six months?

That’s the sentencing range a probation officer recommended after Hastert pleaded guilty to one count of illegally structuring bank withdrawals. Durkin could reject that finding, though, and impose a sentence of up to five years in prison. He has plenty of reasons to do so.

Federal prosecutors say Hastert withdrew $952,000 — $9,000 at a time, from four banks — to evade reporting requirements. Hastert had been taking out $50,000 at a time until he was told that the federal Patriot Act requires banks to report cash transactions of $10,000 or more. He’d withdrawn $1.7 million over 4 1/2 years by the time FBI agents knocked on his door to ask him why.

They eventually learned that Hastert had agreed to pay $3.5 million to cover up “past misconduct.” He was making secret payments to a former student he’d allegedly sexually abused while coaching a high school wrestling team in the 1970s.

A two-year investigation found that Hastert had improper sexual contact with five boys — five — in his 16 years as a coach and teacher in the far southwest suburb, prosecutors say in a pre-sentence filing.

The document goes to great lengths to explain why those lurid events are relevant to the otherwise boring white-collar crime for which Hastert will be sentenced. In a word: motive.

If Hastert had secretly withdrawn almost a million dollars of his own money because he thought it would be safer in a box under his bed — pretty much what he told FBI agents the first time they asked — we’d all be sharing a collective shrug right now. But what he was doing, prosecutors say, was paying to conceal his serial sexual abuse of minors.

The document describes Hastert’s alleged encounters with the boys in the locker room and in a motel on the way home from a wrestling camp. One of them recalled that Hastert put a La-Z-Boy-type chair “in direct view of the shower stalls in the locker room where he sat while the boys showered,” it says.

Having dredged up these allegations and shared them with the world, prosecutors confoundingly assert that they’re OK with the recommended sentencing range of probation to six months in prison — the lowest possible sentence for a felony under federal guidelines.

Hastert’s attorneys are asking for probation. Their sentencing memo says Hastert “feels deep regret and remorse for his actions decades ago and is prepared to accept the consequences” — which he believes should include no prison time.

Hastert’s request for leniency pushes all the usual buttons.

He’s old (74).

He’s sick. (Hastert is recovering from a near-fatal blood infection and stroke suffered late last year.)

He’s a lifelong public servant whose misconduct should be weighed against his considerable contributions to society.

He’s already been punished. He’s been publicly shamed, which is precisely what he was trying to avoid by agreeing to pay his victim $3.5 million.

He’s sorry, profoundly sorry. The problem is that it’s not entirely clear what Hastert is profoundly sorry for. His encounter with Individual A — the former student Hastert was willing to pay millions to silence — “remains ambiguous,” his attorneys say. “We are not so certain that the incident qualifies as sexual misconduct, especially for a coach and trainer 42 years ago,” they wrote.

Then there’s Individual D, who told prosecutors Hastert performed a sex act on him during a massage after wrestling practice. Defense attorneys say Hastert doesn’t contest that story but has “no current recollection of the episode described by Individual D.”

Hastert’s attorneys objected to letting Individual D testify at Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, saying he wasn’t legally a victim and should submit a written statement instead. But Durkin disagreed, even postponing the hearing to accommodate Individual D’s schedule.

“If Individual D wants to come in and talk about being a victim of sexual abuse, he’s entitled to do so because that informs my decision about the history and characteristics of the defendant,” the judge said. “It’s that simple.”

Durkin also made it clear that Hastert could be penalized for lying to the FBI about why he’d withdrawn all that money. Hastert said he was being extorted by a former student who had falsely accused him of sexual abuse, but agents concluded that it was Hastert who was lying. “That’s not conduct that’s 40 years old,” Durkin told the attorneys. “That’s conduct that’s a year old. Among the aggravating factors in this case, that’s a big one.”

The truth is that the aggravating factors in the case far outweigh the seriousness of the actual crime. That crime calls for a maximum sentence of five paltry years. Hastert ought to serve every minute of it.