CHICAGO (AP) — Dennis Hastert pleaded guilty Wednesday to lying to the FBI in a hush-money scheme, agreeing to a deal with federal prosecutors that recommends he serve no more than six months in prison and averting a trial in the case.
A judge, however, could go beyond that recommendation and give the former House speaker up to five years behind bars when he is sentenced next year.
The brief hearing revealed no new details about why Hastert agreed to pay $3.5 million to an unidentified person. The payments were allegedly intended to conceal past misconduct by the Illinois Republican, but prosecutors have never explained the nature of the wrongdoing.
The Associated Press and other media, citing anonymous sources, have reported that the payments were meant to hide claims of sexual misconduct from decades ago.
In exchange for the plea, prosecutors were expected to drop a charge that Hastert violated federal banking laws.
When the judge asked to describe his wrongdoing in his own words, Hastert read from a brief written statement that — like his indictment — focused on how he technically broke banking laws.
He told the court that he had been withdrawing cash $50,000 at a time. After banking officials questioned him, he began taking out less than $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements.
Speaking in a halting voice and losing his place in the text at one point, he described why he lied to the FBI: “I didn’t want them to know how I intended to spend the money.”
The judge asked Hastert, “Did you know that what you were doing was wrong?”
He responded, “Yes, sir.”
Sentencing was set for Feb. 29 — a time frame that allows court officials to complete a report on Hastert’s background that will be used by the judge at sentencing.
The change-of-plea hearing was the longtime GOP leader’s first court appearance since his arraignment in June, when he pleaded not guilty in the same courtroom in Chicago.
A May 28 indictment accused Hastert of handing as much as $100,000 in cash at a time to someone referred to only as “Individual A” to ensure past misconduct by Hastert against the person never became public.
The plea helped seal the downfall of a man who rose from obscurity in rural Illinois to the nation’s third-highest political office.
Hastert was speaker for eight years — longer than any other Republican. He also parlayed his connections into a lucrative lobbying career after leaving Congress in 2007. That career is almost certainly over.
As a convicted felon, “no congressman will want to meet with him about anything. His influence and power will be gone,” said Dick Simpson, a co-author of “Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism, and Criminality.”
Known as a savvy deal maker in Congress, Hastert and his attorneys negotiated the plea deal in recent weeks, avoiding a trial that could have divulged embarrassing secrets dating back to his days as a high-school wrestling coach.
Hastert allegedly made 15 withdrawals of $50,000 from 2010 to 2012. It’s what he allegedly did later in 2012 that would make his actions criminal. After learning withdrawals over $10,000 are flagged, he supposedly began taking out smaller increments, eventually withdrawing $952,000 from 2012 to 2014.
The withdrawals stopped after FBI agents questioned Hastert on Dec. 8, 2014, according to the indictment.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
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