Broken, guilty and struggling to stand before a federal judge, the man once called “Mr. Speaker” just couldn’t say the words.
So U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin finally put him in a corner Wednesday, forcing a quibbling and reluctant Dennis Hastert to clearly admit to the world he sexually abused students at Yorkville High School — including the brother of a political protégé — long before he became one of the most powerful politicians in the country.
The judge called Hastert, once second in line to the presidency, a “serial child molester.” Then he sentenced Hastert to 15 months in prison at the end of a dramatic two-hour hearing that revealed former state House GOP leader Tom Cross’ brother was among Hastert’s victims.
“Nothing is more stunning than having ‘serial child molester’ and ‘speaker of the house’ in the same sentence,” Durkin said.
Hastert must also participate in a sex offender treatment program and a pay a fine of $250,000. Separately, the Teachers Retirement System also stripped him Wednesday of his annual teacher’s pension of $16,622.76.
When the sentencing was done, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said “history would have told a lie” had federal authorities not questioned suspicious bank withdrawals by Hastert and followed a trail that eventually lead to explosive sexual abuse allegations. It all came to light after Hastert agreed to pay $3.5 million to one victim, known publicly only as Individual A, to keep quiet about the abuse.
Hastert’s suspicious withdrawals drew federal scrutiny. But because statutes of limitations had long run out, prosecutors could force Hastert to plead guilty only to a financial crime with a maximum prison sentence of five years.
“Mr. Hastert’s legend and legacy are gone,” Fardon said in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. “And in its place are a broken, humiliated man. That is as it should be.”
Congressional historians have struggled to name another former U.S. House speaker who faced a similar fate.
Hastert watched his sentencing hearing from a wheelchair, wearing a dark suit and blue tie with his two sons sitting nearby. The shamed, 74-year-old outcast had little obvious reaction to his sentence, nor to testimony from one victim’s sister or even to Scott Cross, who revealed himself to be the man previously known in court papers only as Individual D.
The once-powerful Republican insisted on using a walker to stand at a podium and speak to the judge before his sentencing. He ignored offers from the judge to let him sit.
“I’m deeply ashamed to be standing here before you today,” Hastert said when he finally reached the podium. He apologized to his victims, the government, his family and friends and “the people of the United States.”
But more than two weeks after the feds accused Hastert of sexually abusing five students decades ago, Hastert tried to sum up the abuse by simply claiming he “mistreated” his victims. When he finished his statement, Durkin pushed back.
“Did you sexually abuse Mr. Cross?” Durkin said.
“I don’t remember doing that, but I accept his statement,” Hastert said.
The judge then asked about Individual B, and Hastert admitted the abuse. When asked about the late Yorkville High School wrestling team manager Stephen Reinboldt, Hastert told the judge, “It was a different situation, sir.” After the judge offered to let him elaborate, Hastert huddled with his lawyer and simply admitted to the abuse.
Earlier in the sentencing hearing, Cross, 53, described Hastert’s actions to the judge in graphic, emotional detail. He took deep breaths, and his voice trembled as he stood at the courtroom podium.
His family moved to Yorkville from Chicago’s South Side when he was 10. When Hastert’s wrestling team won the state title, Cross was 13 and decided he wanted to be on the wrestling team. He said Hastert molested him when he stayed late after practice one night to cut weight. Nevertheless, Cross still referred to Hastert in court as “coach.”
“I wanted you to know the pain and suffering he caused me then, and the pain and suffering he has caused me today,” Cross said. “As deeply painful as it has been to discuss with my family and with you, staying silent for years was worse. It is important to tell the truth about what happened to me.”
Another victim, Reinboldt, told his sister about Hastert’s abuse shortly before he died in 1995. Reinboldt had overcome a difficult childhood even before he crossed paths with Hastert while a student at Yorkville, and gained confidence thanks to attention from the popular wrestling coach, said Reinboldt’s sister, Jolene Burdge.
Reinboldt’s first sexual encounter was with Hastert as a teenage wrestling team manager, and it set Reinboldt up for a pattern of “risky behavior” as he struggled to cope decades later, Burdge said. Reinboldt died of AIDS at age 42.
Burdge said she confronted Hastert after her brother’s death, and the congressman ignored her. Hastert finally pleaded guilty to a financial charge known as “structuring” last fall and acknowledged his sexual abuse of students only as “past misconduct.” But Wednesday, Burdge spoke to the judge and questioned whether that went far enough.
“Don’t be a coward, Mr. Hastert,” Burdge said as she stood at the lectern, her back to Hastert as he slumped in his seat. “What you did is not misconduct. It was sexual abuse of a minor.”
The man at the center of Hastert’s May 2015 indictment, Individual A, did not testify. His attorney said he would not attend Hastert’s sentencing hearing but she later released a statement applauding federal authorities for “treating our client with dignity and respecting his privacy in a highly sensitive situation while conducting a thorough investigation.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Block told the judge that Individual A had hoped not to testify against Hastert, a key factor in the feds’ decision not to take Hastert to trial. Hastert paid Individual A only $1.7 million, prompting Individual A to sue Hastert on Monday for the balance of the $3.5 million the former speaker agreed in 2010 to hand over.
Block said Hastert’s victims thought no one would believe them had they come forward earlier.
“We do believe you,” Block said. “You do not stand alone.”
When the bank first questioned Hastert about his suspicious bank withdrawals, Hastert lied and claimed he was using the money to buy stocks and antique cars. He later told authorities he was the victim of an extortion plot by Individual A. He helped the feds secretly record two phone conversations with Individual A in March 2015.
But authorities began to doubt the claim and confronted Individual A. That’s when Hastert’s dark secrets began to spill out. And the ruse came back to haunt Hastert on Wednesday, as it clearly annoyed the judge.
“You tried to set him up,” Durkin said to Hastert of Individual A. “You tried to frame him.”
Hastert’s attorneys have made much of the former speaker’s age and failing health. But Hastert lied to the FBI as recently as last year, and the judge said “your age didn’t prevent you from committing any crimes. Your age should not prevent you from being punished for those crimes.”
The judge also made a point to refer to the men abused by Hastert, who have so long been referred to as “individuals” in court documents, as “victims.”
Clearly appalled, the judge described Hastert’s conduct as “unconscionable.” He said “some conduct is unforgivable no matter how old it is.” And he called Hastert’s sentencing day “sad for our country.”
Then, as he brought the hearing to a close, he said, “I hope I never have to see a case like this again.”
Contributing: Alice Keefe, Sam Charles