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Hastert expected to plead guilty Oct. 28

Dennis Hastert, the Yorkville wrestling coach who rose to become Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is expected to plead guilty to criminal wrongdoing Oct. 28.

That hearing promises to go down as one of the more sensational moments in the colorful history of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. Once second in line to the presidency, Hastert, 73, is believed to be the highest-ranking Illinois politician ever criminally charged.

But it’s still not clear what Hastert will plead guilty to, if he’ll face prison time, or whether the identity of the person known only as “Individual A” will ever be revealed. Legal experts predict prosecutors will try to put Hastert behind bars after charging him with skirting banking laws and lying to the FBI, counts that each carry a maximum prison sentence of five years.

“I can’t picture the government not asking for it,” said Michael Ettinger, a veteran Chicago defense attorney.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin on Thursday scheduled the hearing at the request of Hastert’s lawyers, who let a crucial filing deadline pass earlier this week in a sign that a plea deal was in the works. However, Hastert’s intentions were only truly revealed by lawyer John Gallo during a hearing in Durkin’s courtroom.

Prosecutors said they expect to have a written plea agreement with Hastert in time for the hearing. A draft is to be delivered to the judge Monday, but it is not expected to become public until the day of Hastert’s plea.

Hastert has not shown his face in court since he pleaded not guilty to his indictment June 9. The former speaker looked haggard, fended off a media mob and fidgeted in Durkin’s courtroom.

He barely spoke above a whisper when he finally faced the judge.

The bombshell indictment announced May 28 against Hastert accused the Republican of a $3.5 million hush­-money scheme.

The case became even more sensational when sources told media outlets, including the Chicago Sun­-Times, that Hastert paid millions of dollars to a longtime male acquaintance to cover up alleged sexual misconduct.

Hastert lawyer Thomas Green has said those leaks were “unconscionable.” He told Durkin in July the leakers “effectively amended” Hastert’s indictment in an “impermissible” way, and he said “there’s now an 800­-pound gorilla in this case.”

However, the indictment only hints at potential past wrongdoing by Hastert. And by pleading guilty, Hastert might prevent more embarrassing details from spilling out. The case has triggered a search for Hastert’s alleged hush­-money recipient, known only as “Individual A,” which has so far been unsuccessful. That person is described in the indictment simply as “a resident of Yorkville” who has known Hastert “most of Individual A’s life.”

Hastert allegedly withdrew $1.7 million from his bank accounts between 2010 and 2014, handing it over to “Individual A” to keep quiet about past misconduct, according to the indictment. Hastert had ultimately agreed to pay that person $3.5 million, the indictment alleged.

Hastert illegally split up the withdrawal of $952,000 to evade bank reporting requirements, according to the feds. 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 and said, “Yeah … I kept the cash. That’s what I’m doing.”

The former speaker has largely gone into hiding since his indictment. He must return to Chicago’s federal courthouse to plead guilty, but that won’t be his last visit. Hastert will likely be forced to return later for a sentencing hearing that could turn into a delicate dance, depending on the deal he reaches with the feds.

While Hastert might want to avoid prison time by pointing out his good works over the course of his political career, that might give prosecutors an opportunity to present damaging details Hastert wants to keep hidden.