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Dennis Hastert, former US House speaker, sentenced to 15 months in prison

Chicago Tribune logoChicago Tribune 4/27/2016 By Jason Meisner, Jeff Coen and Christy Gutowski

Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert arrives for sentencing on April 27, 2016 at Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert arrives for sentencing on April 27, 2016 at Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
© Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — Dennis Hastert, once the longest-serving Republican House speaker in U.S. history, was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in Chicago to 15 months in prison for paying $1.7 million in hush money to cover up sexual abuse from decades ago.

U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin called Hastert a “serial child molester.”

Throughout the judge’s remarks, Hastert sat in his wheelchair without expression, glasses low on his nose. At one point, as Durkin made it clear that probation was not in the cards, Hastert clasped his hands in front of his face and dropped his eyes.

He showed no outward reaction to the sentence. As the dozens of spectators filed from the courtroom, Hastert remained motionless with his mouth downturned, not speaking to anyone.

Shortly before learning his sentence, Hastert admitted for the first time that he sexually abused boys decades ago when he was the wrestling coach for Yorkville High School in Illinois.

Hastert approached the microphone in court and apologized to those he victimized, saying he “mistreated athletes.” Durkin then pressed for details, asking directly if Hastert sexually abused the victims.

“Yes,” Hastert finally said.

Hastert said he did not recall abusing Scott Cross, who identified himself as alleged victim Individual D in court testimony Wednesday, “but I accept his statement.”

Asked by the judge about another alleged victim, Stephen Reinboldt, Hastert called it “a different situation” before finally acknowledging it.

“What I did was wrong and I regret it,” Hastert said. “They looked to me and I took advantage of them.”

Earlier in court, an emotional Cross took the witness stand. Cross, 53, is a younger brother of former Illinois House Republican leader Tom Cross, a former Kendall County lawmaker who considered Hastert a political mentor.

Scott Cross said he was testifying publicly about what happened to him, so that his children and others will know there’s an alternative to staying silent. As painful as going public would be, he said, “staying silent was worse.”

Cross said he moved from Chicago’s South Side to suburban Yorkville as a 10-year-old and looked up to Hastert. The renowned wrestling coach invited him to wrestling camps in Virginia and Colorado. Hastert was “a key figure in my life as a coach and a teacher,” said Cross, of Wheaton.

Cross said the alleged abuse episode took place when Cross was alone with Hastert in a wrestling room.

“He told me he could help me lose weight by giving me a massage,” he testified. “I trusted what he was saying and took him at his word.”

His voice shaking, Cross said Hastert told him to lie face down. The massage started, but after a few minutes, Hastert asked him to roll over.

Hastert then grabbed his penis and began rubbing it, Cross said.

“I was stunned by what he was doing — I jumped up,” he said.

Cross also told the courtroom about the reclining chair Hastert allegedly put up near the boys’ shower, saying he came to accept it because he trusted Hastert. Years later he felt pain and guilt and sought professional help. He just told his parents last year, Cross said.

On Wednesday, Tom Cross released a statement on behalf of the family:

“We are very proud of Scott for having the courage to relive this very painful part of his life in order to ensure that justice is done today. We hope his testimony will provide courage and strength to other victims of other cases of abuse to speak out and advocate for themselves. With his testimony concluded, we ask now that you respect Scott’s privacy and that of our family.”

Hastert’s federal sentencing hearing got underway with a prosecutor announcing two witnesses would take the witness stand, including Individual D.

The first prosecution witness, Jolene Burdge, the sister of Reinboldt, first read a letter her brother wrote five months before he died, describing his last painful days.

When he died of AIDS in 1995, Burdge said she was determined to confront Hastert “and hold you accountable for sexually abusing my brother. I knew your secret, and you couldn’t bribe or intimidate your way out.”

She criticized Hastert for not being truthful about what happened.

“You think you can deny your abuse of Steve because he can no longer speak for himself — that’s why I’m here,” she said.

Burdge urged Hastert to show the honor, integrity and decency all his supporters say he has. The conduct led her brother down a dark path, she said.

“You were supposed to keep him safe, not violate him,” she said.

After the testimonies by the two witnesses, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Block told the judge that Hastert’s attempts to keep his secret safe continue to this day, noting Hastert falsely accused another alleged sex abuse victim, identified only as Individual A, of extorting him last year.

Hastert could have come up with any reason for having to withdraw the money at the center of the indictment but instead tried to put a criminal case on Individual A even though he “had committed no crime,” the prosecutor said.

Hastert tried whatever he could to keep his secret, Block said.

“He has failed,” Block said. “This process has shined a light on the defendant’s history of sexual abuse and his attempts to cover it up.”

Hastert’s lead lawyer, Thomas Green of Washington, asked the judge to consider the entire arc of Hastert’s life in fashioning his sentence.

“Nothing I say this morning … should be interpreted or received by anyone as an attempt to minimize the emotional trauma and lasting injury” inflicted by Hastert 30 years ago, he said. “We acknowledge and respect what we have heard here this morning.”

Hastert made “poor decisions” after being confronted by the FBI about his past, Green said, retreating to “survival instinct” after being approached by federal agents. He couldn’t admit his past wrongdoing to himself, let alone to a federal agent, Green said.

“He did not know the truth,” the attorney said.

Some of that lingers today, said Green, pointing out that Hastert approached Tom Cross for a letter of support at sentencing even though Cross’ brother was one of the alleged sex abuse victims.

As his lawyer spoke, Hastert hung his head, his eyes gazing toward the floor as Green described how all his good works have been eclipsed by his misdeeds years ago.

Hastert has seen his name removed from public buildings and his portrait at the Capitol sent to storage. Many letters of support for him have been withdrawn as the case progressed, according to his lawyer

“This is one of the most sad and tragic cases I have ever encountered,” Green said. Hastert’s life has been forever compromised “in every way possible,” he said.

He sits at home alone in a wheelchair, unable to take care of himself, “isolated from society,” Green said.

“I do not believe that more is necessary,” Green said in asking for probation for Hastert.

Hastert faced up to five years from Durkin, who said he has put all correspondence received before sentencing on the public record in the case.

The case against Hastert began to unfold four years ago after a bank in Yorkville noticed numerous $50,000 cash withdrawals by him between June 2010 and April 2012, according to prosecutors.

When a bank official contacted Hastert to ask about the withdrawals, the former lawmaker said it was none of his business, but when he was pressed, he claimed in part that he was withdrawing the cash to buy stocks. After that, Hastert began to withdraw cash in increments of less than $10,000, leading the Yorkville bank to close his account because of his suspicious activity, prosecutors said.

By early 2013 federal law enforcement officials learned of Hastert’s withdrawal of the large sums of cash at the Yorkville bank and two other banks.

It wasn’t until late 2014 that authorities decided to interview Hastert about what turned out to be his withdrawal of $1.7 million over the previous 4 1/2 years. Hastert claimed he didn’t trust banks and wanted his cash “in a safe place,” according to prosecutors.

Shortly after that interview, lawyers for Hastert told authorities that the former House speaker was a victim of an extortion plot and would cooperate in an investigation. Hastert claimed that Individual A had falsely accused him of inappropriately touching him decades ago when he was coach, according to prosecutors.

At the request of authorities in March 2015, Hastert secretly recorded two calls to Individual A to try to catch him making extortionist threats, but agents soon realized it was Hastert who appeared to be lying. Authorities then decided to question Individual A, who told them about how Hastert had him stay in a motel room overnight with him while returning from a wrestling camp. Individual A had complained about a groin pull, so Hastert said he wanted to check it out and began massaging his groin area after telling him to remove his underwear, prosecutors said.

In a bombshell sentencing memo detailing the sex abuse allegations, prosecutors said Hastert’s life was “marred by stunning hypocrisy,” noting that in his memoir, the former House speaker reflected on his career as a wrestling coach, writing that there was “never a sufficient reason to strip away a person’s dignity.”

“Yet that is exactly what he did to his victims,” prosecutors wrote. “He made them feel alone, ashamed, guilty and devoid of dignity. While (Hastert) achieved great success, reaping all the benefits that went with it, these boys struggled, and all are still struggling now with what (he) did to them.”

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