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Sex scandals made Denny Hastert — now one could break him

WASHINGTON — Denny Hastert became speaker of the House because of sex scandals.

Now, at 73, the once-powerful speaker faces federal charges stemming from allegations of having his own, decades-old sexual wrongdoing.

Indicted by a federal grand jury in Chicago, Hastert is accused of making payoffs to cover up “past misconduct … that had occurred years earlier” with an unnamed person. He’s in trouble, the indictment said, because he lied to the FBI about cash payments he made to buy the silence of his alleged victim and improperly structured the size of his bank withdrawals to avoid scrutiny.

Sources say Hastert paid the hush money to cover up alleged sexual misconduct with a male that took place sometime between 1965 and 1981, when he was a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville.

That the man known affectionately as “The Coach” could end up in this mess is a stunning turn for Hastert, House speaker between 1999 and 2007.

He was thought of the “Accidental Speaker.” That’s because of the dramatic turn of events on one day — Saturday, Dec. 19, 1998 — that vaulted the relatively unknown lawmaker from Chicago’s west suburbs to the post.

House members came in that day for an unusual Saturday session for what would be historic votes to impeach President Bill Clinton.

The votes were to be on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, though everyone knew Clinton got into this jam because of his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Earlier in the day, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton headed to Capitol Hill to give a pep talk to House Democrats to prevent defectors. She promised, without mentioning Lewinsky, that she would be fighting to keep her husband in the White House.

Meanwhile, another story in the House involving sex was unfolding, one with enormous impact for Hastert. Republicans had lost seats in the 1998 mid-term elections, with some blaming their party’s leaders for aggressively pursuing the Clinton impeachment.

After the election losses, some House members asked Hastert, then the chief deputy whip under Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to run for majority leader. But he refused because he already had promised to support to Rep. Dick Armey R-Texas.

That loyalty bought Hastert a lot of good will.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich R-Georgia,decided to resign soon after disappointing midterm results, through the public was not yet aware he too, had been having an affair.

Gingrich threw his backing to Louisiana’s Rep. Bob Livingston.

On that fateful Saturday, members gathered knowing that Livingston had admitted earlier in the week he was having an extramarital affair, jumping the gun on a magazine that was about to expose him.

Livingston launched into a speech on the House floor, urging Clinton to just quit.

But what happened next was a shocker. Livingston announced his own resignation.

I was in the House gallery that day and recall the gasps and shouts from members absorbing what Livingston was doing. Suddenly, Republicans had to find a new speaker.

“The protege of former Minority Leader Robert Michel of Illinois became “everyone’s first choice” with the sudden power vacuum,” I reported.

I was able to log Hastert’s swift moves as I followed his team around the Capitol.

At 12:15, while the House was voting on the articles of impeachment, Hastert was strategizing with allies.

By 1 p.m. he was a candidate for speaker, working the House floor. By 7 p.m., Hastert had locked in the votes to be elected speaker.

Hastert’s serious interest in politics started when he was at Yorkville High School, where he spent 16 years as a history teacher and, for part of that time, wrestling coach.

A 1978 trip to Washington, where he soaked in the political scene, launched Hastert on the road that would lead to becoming speaker.

Once home, he got an internship with a state senator and decided to run for a state House seat. He lost the Republican primary. But, after the nominee fell ill, the lucky Hastert was tapped to be his replacement and won a seat in the Illinois General Assembly in 1980.

Then, in 1986, when Rep. John Grotberg, R-Ill., died, Hastert, again got lucky. Local Republican party bosses picked him to take Grotberg’s plac, and Hastert moved on from Springfield to Washington.

After winning election to Congress in 1986, Hastert, who represented a solidly Republican district, never had to worry much about winning re-election.

He joined the Commerce Committee and began his rise.

Hastert’s alliance with DeLay thrust him into the leadership ranks. Hastert was an architect of DeLay’s 1994 campaign to become the “Whip” and was rewarded by becoming DeLay’s chief deputy.

DeLay could not be speaker because was a polarizing figure, even among Republicans. Democrats loved to demonize him.

As speaker, Hastert never craved the spotlight and avoided the Sunday political shows on TV.

A rap on Hastert was that he was not his own man and that DeLay was pulling his strings.

But after raising money and traveling the country to help elect House Republicans in 2000, he became a force in his own right. It helped that he was trusted by the various ideological factions of the Republican Party.

With a Democratic House political operation led by the future Chicago mayor and then Congressman Rahm Emanuel, Democrats won the majority in 2006. Nancy Pelosi, not Denny Hastert, would be the next speaker.

But Hastert’s time as speaker might have been over even if Republicans had kept the majority of seats in the House because of a sex scandal involving then Rep. Mark Foley R-Fl.

Foley resigned after an ABC News investigation revealed he had exchanged, as I wrote in October 2006 ,‘”over friendly e-mails with one congressional page and sexually explicit instant messages with another page. Both pages were teenage boys.”

That December, a House ethics panel issued a report critical of how Hastert and his team handled the cybersex scandal.

Sex scandals cleared the way for Hastert to become House speaker more than 16 years ago. But fate cuts both ways. Now, Hastert is embroiled in an alleged sex scandal of his own.