It’s been nearly a week since his indictment, and Dennis Hastert still hasn’t shown his face in public.
No lawyer has spoken up on his behalf.
But even as Hastert avoids answering the stunning accusations leveled by a federal grand jury last week, some criminal defense attorneys in Chicago are calling the obscure charge he faces an example of overreach by federal prosecutors — perhaps filed only because of the prominent stature of the former U.S. House Speaker.
Hastert is charged with taking a total of $952,000 out of his bank accounts across at least 106 withdrawals in a way to avoid the banks’ reporting requirements for transactions of more than $10,000. The crime is known as structuring. And Hugh Mundy, an assistant professor at The John Marshall Law School, said it usually appears “at the end of the Department of Justice checklist.”
“Usually, in my experience, when the charge is structuring, the message from the U.S. attorney’s office is, ‘This is what we can prove,’ ” Mundy said.
Hastert agreed to make $3.5 million in hush money payments to a man allegedly to conceal sexual misconduct that occurred sometime between 1965 and 1981, according to the grand jury indictment and federal sources. He allegedly paid $1.7 million but structured just $952,000. He is set to be arraigned Tuesday afternoon.
Attorney Joseph Lopez said he’s defended “tons” of structuring cases, though those have involved “typical” allegations of money laundering. In Hastert’s case, Lopez said the former speaker withdrew his own “legitimate funds” and “nothing of an illegal nature is at issue.” Rather, the indictment said Hastert tried to cover up “past misconduct.”
“I think it’s really overreaching,” Lopez said. “And perhaps him — being who he is — is one of the motivations behind it.”
Larry Beaumont, a former federal prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney, said the charge usually appears in the wake of drug charges and money laundering charges. Rarely is someone only charged with structuring, he said.
“If it wasn’t for the target, the person himself, I highly doubt it would have been charged,” Beaumont said of Hastert’s indictment.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.
Of course, Hastert is not charged solely with structuring. He’s also charged with lying to the FBI, and he could face as many as five years in prison for each count. But he allegedly lied to investigators as they were trying to determine if, among other things, Hastert was structuring his withdrawals.
Agents asked the Illinois Republican if he made his withdrawals because he didn’t trust the banks. And Hastert allegedly said, “Yeah . . . I kept the cash. That’s what I’m doing.”
Mundy said the structuring charge is appealing to prosecutors because they must prove only that Hastert had knowledge of what he was doing — as opposed to a conscious objective to commit the crime. He called it a “subtle difference but a significant one.”
Meanwhile, while Hastert’s high profile might have contributed to the decision to charge him, DePaul University Law Professor Emeritus Leonard L. Cavise noted that often applies to people in Hastert’s position.
“People who have high-profile positions are subject to much more scrutiny than other people are,” Cavise said. “They not only have to steer clear of violations, they can’t even come close because somebody is always going to imply that they were trying to break the law.”
Still, as much as Hastert’s reputation has been maligned in the last week, one local defense attorney thinks it could have been worse. Ed Genson said the details contained in Hastert’s indictment could have been much more explicit.
That’s why Genson speculated Hastert “cut a deal” with the feds and likely won’t take to trial a case revolving around a $3.5 million secret.
“You can’t keep a secret if you’re going to go to trial on this,” Genson said.