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Mark Brown: Seems Hastert forgot that rules change when talking to the feds

What secret from Denny Hastert’s past was so potentially damaging that federal prosecutors say the former U.S. Speaker of the House agreed to pay an individual $3.5 million to keep it concealed?

At this point, all we have are a few clues left by prosecutors pointing to unspecified “prior misconduct” by Hastert, possibly dating all the way back to his tenure as teacher and coach at Yorkville High School from 1965 to 1981, which was conspicuously mentioned in the first sentence of his indictment.

During that period, Hastert was the school’s celebrated wrestling coach.

OPINION

The individual who was paid $1.7 million in installments by Hastert after confronting him in 2010 is described only as someone who has been a Yorkville resident and has known Hastert most of the individual’s life. The indictment says the misconduct occurred “years earlier.”

I think we can all make reasonable guesses about what that misconduct probably involves, although I don’t see any point in me speculating about it more specifically in print at this point.

As so often is the case, it wasn’t that original misconduct that tripped up Hastert anyway. It was the alleged cover-up.

Hastert’s mistake, as laid out in his indictment, was to make a series of large cash withdrawals in amounts just under $10,000 to avoid triggering a federal report that banks must file with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. This behavior drew the attention of the FBI and IRS because it can constitute a crime that the feds call “structuring.”

Then Hastert allegedly compounded his predicament by lying to the FBI agents who questioned him about it.

Lying goes hand in hand with being in politics.

Politicians lie to the public. They lie to the press. They lie to each other.

They don’t even think of it as lying so much as “framing the message.”

Everybody in politics is used to this, even the press. Nobody takes it too personally.

In my previous life as an investigative reporter, one of the earliest lessons I had to learn was that just because a politician was lying to me didn’t mean he was lying to the federal investigators looking into the same matter.

But what a lot of politicians do forget is that there is a law against lying to a federal agent. They agree to be interviewed, assuming they can talk their way out of anything.

Actually, it’s not just the politicians who get tripped up by that. I’ve seen a lot of criminals who are used to lying to the police who learn the hard way that the FBI can put you away for that.

There’s no small irony in the fact that Hastert survived a career in Illinois and Washington politics with his reputation relatively unscathed only to have it crash down upon him in retirement for something that may predate his first run for the Illinois Legislature.

An individual of modest means when he first became speaker, Hastert is now wealthy enough as a lobbyist paid to influence the government of which he was a part that he could allegedly pay out $1.7 million over a four-year period to help clear his conscience.

It must have been something pretty bad.