Dennis Hastert once lived two heartbeats away from the Oval Office.
Now, a judge will decide whether he belongs in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin is poised to finally hand down the former U.S. House speaker’s sentence Wednesday in the most highly anticipated hearing at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse since former Gov. Rod Blagojevich landed behind bars.
Hastert, 74, hopes for probation. Prosecutors have asked for no more than six months in prison. But Durkin could put Hastert away for as many as five years, if he sees fit.
Meanwhile, one of Hastert’s victims could add to the drama by revealing his identity publicly for the first time when he takes the witness stand.
It all caps an 11-month saga that began when prosecutors dropped a bombshell indictment against the once-powerful Republican in May 2015. It accused Hastert of lying to the FBI and skirting banking laws — but it hinted at something much more sinister.
Explosive allegations have now spilled out. The feds say Hastert sexually abused five students decades ago when he was a wrestling coach at Yorkville High School. He agreed to pay one, known publicly only as Individual A, $3.5 million in hush money. The bank noticed Hastert’s suspicious withdrawals, which led to his undoing. He paid only $1.7 million.
The former speaker pleaded guilty last fall to withdrawing a total of $952,000 in a way to avoid raising red flags — a charge known as structuring. But he acknowledged he lied to the FBI. And prosecutors say Hastert falsely claimed to be a victim of extortion last year, leading the FBI on a wild goose chase before his indictment.
Durkin took notice of that last allegation during a hearing earlier this month, offering the lawyers a quick “preview” of Wednesday’s sentencing.
“That’s not conduct that’s 40 years old,” Durkin said of Hastert’s ruse. “That’s conduct that’s less than a year old.”
Hastert’s lawyers say he “nearly died” last year, suffering a small stroke and a severe blood stream infection. They recently said he is “limited to a wheelchair.”
But that won’t necessarily save him from prison. And the ailing former speaker will still suffer the same indignity faced by all politicians forced into the Dirksen courthouse as he passes a throng of media on his way to Durkin’s courtroom on the 14th floor.
Court officials plan to open two overflow courtrooms to accommodate reporters, sketch artists and curious members of the public.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have filed memos outlining the arguments they will make in court. Hastert’s lawyers say he “feels deep regret and remorse” and should be sentenced to probation. Prosecutors say Hastert made his victims “feel alone, ashamed, guilty and devoid of dignity.”
While Hastert’s crime is key, the judge will also weigh the allegations of sexual misconduct against Hastert’s age, health and lack of criminal history. The judge could also consider Hastert’s government service — a double-edged sword given allegations that a man once second in line to the presidency misled the FBI.
Also crucial could be any comment Hastert makes in the final moments before he is sentenced.
But whether Hastert lands behind bars won’t be the only point of contention. Prosecutors want Hastert to undergo a sex offender evaluation, and probation officials have suggested he submit to a polygraph to reveal “any recent misconduct.” Hastert’s lawyers have balked.
Two witnesses are likely to take the stand. One is Jolene Burdge, sister of the late Yorkville High School wrestling team manager Stephen Reinboldt. Burdge says her brother was a victim of Hastert’s abuse in the 1970s.
The other is a man known publicly, so far, only as Individual D. Prosecutors say he was molested by Hastert and recalled Hastert putting a La-Z-Boy-style chair in direct view of the boys locker room shower stalls at Yorkville High School.
The feds have not asked for measures that would protect Individual D’s identity.
However, a lawyer for Individual A said he will not be in the courtroom when Hastert is sentenced. Individual A sued Hastert on Monday for the remaining $1.8 million in hush money that Hastert agreed to pay. But he has not joined the call to send Hastert to prison.
Instead, Individual A’s lawyer said the man at the center of Hastert’s indictment has simply “put his faith in the criminal justice system to do what is right.”