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Ex-House Speaker Dennis Hastert in plea negotations

Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s lawyers are in plea discussions with federal prosecutors to resolve his case before a potentially embarrassing two-week trial, officials indicated Monday.

But if those negotiations fail, U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin said Monday during a court hearing that he’d prefer Hastert’s trial to begin as soon as March or April. The judge made that announcement as both sides appeared in court Monday on an otherwise routine motion to extend filing deadlines in the case.

The judge said he wants know whether to set a trial date when both sides appear before him again Oct. 15.

“You should know,” Durkin said.

Hastert attorney John Gallo said discussions with federal prosecutors have been “linear and productive” and have included a possible resolution to the case. But if the two sides fail to reach a deal, Hastert’s lawyers said they will file a 37-page motion to dismiss Hastert’s indictment.

The motion includes claims of government misconduct, as well as legal arguments for dismissing the charge that Hastert lied to the FBI. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Block said prosecutors “absolutely do not agree with the motion.”

Hastert did not attend the hearing at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon later acknowledged the plea negotiations after an event at the City Club of Chicago.

Veteran defense attorney Michael Ettinger said Hastert’s team is probably trying to avoid jail time for their client and limit the number of embarrassing details released in any plea agreement. Ettinger said Hastert may have a chance of avoiding time behind bars, especially if he argues he’s been extorted by the alleged victim in his case.

“I would assume he just wants to get it over with and get on with his life and retire,” Ettinger said.

Federal prosecutors unveiled an indictment in May that charged Hastert with skirting banking laws and lying to the FBI as part of an alleged $3.5 million hush-money scheme. The former speaker pleaded not guilty to the charges on June 9 in an arraignment in Chicago.

Sources have told the Sun-Times that Hastert paid millions of dollars to a longtime male acquaintance to cover up alleged sexual misconduct. Hastert lawyer Thomas Green has since called leaks to the media  “unconscionable.”

While Hastert’s indictment is vague, embarrassing details could spill out if the case goes to trial. Prosecutors have said such a proceeding is likely to last two weeks.

Meanwhile, a plea deal with prosecutors could mean those details never see the light of day. It could also protect the identity of the alleged hush-money recipient, known only as “Individual A.”