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Feds charge former House Speaker Dennis Hastert paid hush money, tried to cover it up

He rose to one of the highest elected offices in the land, serving for eight years as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives — just a couple of heartbeats from the presidency.

But past misconduct against a longtime acquaintance from the hometown where Dennis Hastert decades ago taught high school history and coached wrestling haunted the powerful Republican, federal prosecutors say.

So between 2010 and 2014, Hastert allegedly withdrew $1.7 million in hush money from his bank accounts, handing it over to the acquaintance to keep quiet, according to a stunning grand jury indictment handed down Thursday. He’d agreed to ultimately pay $3.5 million, it’s alleged.

Then, when the FBI got suspicious and asked Hastert if he made withdrawals as large as $50,000 because he didn’t trust the banks, he allegedly lied, telling the feds, “Yeah . . . I kept the cash. That’s what I’m doing.”

FORMER STUDENT: Retired teacher was on Hastert’s high school wrestling team, calls him ‘second father’

Once second in line to the presidency, Hastert, 73, of Plano, now has an unwanted distinction: he’s believed to be the highest-ranking Illinois politician ever to be criminally charged. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of structuring the alleged hush money payments to avoid detection, and of lying to the FBI.

In an ironic twist, Hastert’s ascent to become the longest-serving Republican speaker was marked by a series of scandals befalling others. He assumed the speakership when front-runner Bob Livingston bowed out over an extra-marital affair, then immediately played a leading role in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

His arraignment has not been scheduled, but authorities said the case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin.

Neither Hastert nor his representatives could be reached for comment Thursday, and his “past misconduct” against the unnamed acquaintance from Yorkville is not explained in the indictment. Several of Hastert’s former associates told the Chicago Sun-Times they were stunned and puzzled, though. One Hastert friend said the indictment read like Hastert was involved in a blackmail plot.

Between June 2010 and April 2012, the indictment said, Hastert made 15 withdrawals of $50,000 from his bank accounts and gave the cash to the acquaintance, named only as “Individual A,” every six weeks.

But bank employees began to question Hastert about the withdrawals in April 2012. And by federal law, those banks were required to file a currency transaction report for any transaction exceeding $10,000, according to the indictment.

So in July 2012, Hastert allegedly began withdrawing the cash in increments of less than $10,000. He still gave the cash to “Individual A” in $50,000 increments, according to the indictment.

Roughly two years later, in 2014, Hastert and Individual A allegedly changed their arrangement. Hastert began giving the acquaintance $100,000 every three months, the grand jury said, but continued to make withdrawals of less than $10,000.

In all, the feds said, he split up the withdrawal of $952,000 in cash to evade the banks’ reporting requirements.

Hastert resigned Thursday as a board member of the CME Group — the company includes the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the New York Mercantile Exchange. His picture and biography had disappeared from the board section of the CME website. A spokesman for the CME did not return a call for comment.

A member of Congress between 1987 and 2007 representing Chicago’s western suburbs, Hastert became a lobbyist and government affairs adviser after leaving Congress.

He commuted regularly between Washington and his Illinois home.

Since 2008, Hastert worked with the Washington D.C.-based law firm Dickstein Shapiro as a lobbyist, a position he also resigned Thursday. The firm’s online biography of Hastert listed him as the co-leader of the firm’s Public Policy & Political Law Practice.

In it, Hastert listed as among his achievements his three terms serving in the Illinois General Assembly “where he spearheaded legislation on child abuse prevention, property tax reform, education excellence, and economic development.”

Politically, Hastert has been keeping a relatively low profile – appearing now and then on political shows – and making some endorsements, such as for Mitt Romney in 2012. He’s lost weight in recent years and battled with health issues, including after having gallbladder surgery.

A diabetic, Hastert sometimes walked with protective coverings on his feet to avoid developing foot sores.

Hastert’s son, Ethan, is a partner at the Mayer Brown law firm in Chicago and once worked as an aide in the office of former Vice President Dick Cheney. In 2010, he unsuccessfully ran for Congress, losing to U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill.

Known by all as Denny, the elder Hastert’s nickname was “the coach” as much for his approach to keeping his GOP team together as his high school coaching career.

Raised in Oswego, he worked at family restaurants before attending North Central College in Naperville, receiving his undergrad degree from Wheaton College in 1964 and picking up a master’s at Northern Illinois University.

Wheaton College now is the home of the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy.

As a high school teacher watching the local political scene, Hastert started his political career when he won a 1980 election to the Illinois General Assembly. He was elected to the House in 1986. He rose in leadership, becoming the chief deputy whip under former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Tx., in 1994.

In a historic day on the House floor, Hastert locked in the votes to become speaker on Dec. 19, 1998, replacing Newt Gingrich, who decided to quit. On that Saturday – when the main business was supposed to be the impeachment of Clinton – Hastert swiftly got the backing to be speaker when Livingston, the Louisiana Republican who was in line to follow Gingrich, suddenly resigned in the wake of an affair.