BY DIANE DIMOND
Later this month, one of the most powerful men ever to have served in the U.S. House of Representatives will face a federal judge to learn his fate. Dennis Hastert has pleaded guilty to evading U.S. banking laws, illegally structuring payouts to conceal other crimes and lying to the FBI. But that’s only a small part of his sordid story.
It’s a textbook case of why critics are able to say there is one system of justice for the rich and connected and quite another for the rest of us. It’s also another condemnation of our statute of limitations laws, which say suspects can’t be tried for certain crimes if too much time has passed.
Hastert, the longest-sitting Republican house speaker, came to the attention of the feds after he began systematically to withdraw large sums of cash in 2010. Court documents reveal bank officials first noticed the activity and under the Patriot Act they were obligated to report the withdrawals to the government. Court documents reveal that FBI agents had immediate suspicions:
“What was the actual purpose of withdrawing so much cash and what did defendant do with the money? Was defendant, the former speaker of the United States House of Representatives, a victim of extortion? Was defendant, a lobbyist in communication with domestic and foreign business and political leaders, committing a crime through illegal use of the money?”
By December 2014, the FBI realized Hastert had withdrawn $1.7 million, so they arranged a face-to-face interview. Hastert cryptically told FBI agents he was “not in any kind of trouble.” He said he was taking cash out because he did not think the banks were safe — and he was keeping the cash “in a safe place,” though he would not specify its location, according to a court filing.
Within a month, a lawyer for Hastert called the FBI to change the story, to explain that the former speaker was, indeed, the victim of an extortion plot. It was agreed that agents would listen in to phone conversations between Hastert and a person referred to as “Individual A.”
It became clear, according to the FBI, that Individual A, who first met Hastert when he was a 14-year-old member of then-coach Hastert’s wrestling team in a small Illinois town, was the real victim — a victim of child sexual abuse at the hands of his coach. The FBI concluded there was no extortion attempt. Hastert had agreed to pay as much as $3.5 million for the younger man’s silence. That the bank had stumbled upon his withdrawals was Hastert’s downfall.
The prosecutor in the case now reveals at least three other former students from Hastert’s days as a high school coach in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s have also come forward to say they were sexually abused by the once-popular and championship-winning coach. One of the students, Steven Reinboldt, has since died, but his sister and three other people told the FBI that Steven told them long ago that his first gay experience had been with his coach and that Hastert sexually abused him “all through high school.”
In Hastert’s pre-sentencing motion to the court he expressed “deep regret and remorse for his actions decades ago,” but he does not describe those actions. Hastert also denies Reinboldt’s claim of repeated abuse. At sentencing later this month the former politician’s lawyers are sure to bring up his age — 74 — the stroke he suffered last year and his years of public service as mitigating factors. The prosecution can only ask the court to impose the maximum possible sentence for the former speaker: six months in prison.
That’s right. For what the prosecution calls several “known acts” of child molestation, devising an illegal structured payout scheme to hide his ugly secrets and for repeatedly lying to the FBI, John Dennis “Denny” Hastert faces only six months behind bars. Something tells me because of who he is, or more specifically who he was, he may get off with no prison time at all. The statute of limitations has long since passed.
Unfortunately, the pain caused by Hastert’s actions has not passed. The sister of the deceased Reinboldt and a victim identified only as Individual D reportedly plan to attend the sentencing hearing to deliver victim impact statements. It won’t constitute real justice, but the truth about Hastert’s actions will finally be on the record.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email [email protected]