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Hastert is latest Illinois pol making history for wrong reason

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert arrives at the federal courthouse for his arraignment last year. | Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Another Illinois politician could land in the history books for all the wrong reasons this week.

This time, it’s former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, scheduled to be sentenced on Wednesday.

Commonly described as the longest-serving Republican speaker, Hastert might earn a new distinction: First former House speaker to be sentenced to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Whether Hastert earns that title will be up to U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin, who has presided over Hastert’s case ever since the 74-year-old former speaker was indicted last May. Federal prosecutors have asked Durkin only to impose a sentence within federal guidelines, which allow between zero and six months behind bars. But Durkin is free to go above those guidelines and could impose a sentence of up to five years.

At the other extreme, Hastert’s attorneys have asked for probation. And dozens of letters have been sent to the court — by Hastert’s wife, sons, former congressmen and other government officials — vouching for Hastert’s character and asking Durkin to show leniency. One even came from former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, himself convicted of a felony involving campaign finance laws — a conviction that later was overturned.

However, comments by the judge suggest Hastert’s bid for probation is in trouble.

Meanwhile, congressional historians reached by the Chicago Sun-Times could point to no other House speaker who faced a similar fate — with the possible exception of a few 19th century speakers who sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

It’s worth noting that Hastert’s legal troubles have nothing to do with public corruption. Rather, the feds have unearthed startling allegations of sexual abuse of teen boys in Hastert’s past. But the revelations quickly led to efforts to scrub Hastert’s name from places of prominence — including the removal of his portrait from the U.S. Capitol.

The historians contacted by the Sun-Times included Ronald Peters, regents’ professor of political science at The University of Oklahoma and author of “The American Speakership: The Office in Historical Perspective.”

“I’m just not able to name a single example, that I can think of right now, of any speaker who’s gone to jail,” Peters said.

It’s not unheard of for former members of Congress to land behind bars — former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds landed in federal custody twice in the last two weeks. Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. just finished a 23-month prison stay last year. Chicago congressman Dan Rostenkowski spent more than a year in prison in the 1990s. And former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock is being investigated by a federal grand jury in Springfield.

But only 54 people have held the title of speaker, according to the Office of the House Historian’s website. One, Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia, became the Confederate Secretary of State and was “briefly imprisoned at the end of the Civil War,” according to the site.

Still others have been embroiled in scandal. Schuyler Colfax of Indiana gets a mention for his role in the Credit Mobilier of America scandal in the early 1870s. And Hastert himself rose to power when Rep. Bob Livingston, who was poised to become speaker, admitted in 1998 he had an extramarital affair and announced his resignation.

Peters couldn’t even recall a speaker who faced criminal charges, though according to an online archive maintained by the House, Speaker Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey was arrested in 1807 on the charge of conspiring with Aaron Burr in treasonable projects. Dayton, however, was released and never brought to trial.

So Hastert’s case might have already made history. Not only was he indicted last May, but he walked into U.S. District Court last fall and pleaded guilty to illegally structuring bank withdrawals that totaled $952,000 to avoid raising red flags.

The feds say Hastert made those withdrawals as he paid hush money to a former student he sexually abused decades ago as a high school wrestling coach. The feds say Hastert also abused four others.

Peters, who once had the opportunity to interview Hastert, called the case a “tragedy.” But he doesn’t look at it as a case with political implications, because none of the conduct in question occurred when Hastert was in office.

Still, he said it was “shocking,” given Hastert’s reputation as “a regular guy, a decent guy.”

“I mean, you know, who’d have thought that Denny Hastert would have been involved in anything like this?” Peters said.

Yorkville High school Social Studies Teacher Dennis Hastert

Yorkville High school Social Studies Teacher Dennis Hastert from the high school’s 1975 yearbook.