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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Scandals of others put Hastert in power

Newt Gingrich: His affairs cost him. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Newt Gingrich: His affairs cost him. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Dennis Hastert’s career as House speaker both arose and ended amid the sex-related scandals of others.

Now, eight years after leaving Congress, Hastert’s own legacy is threatened by an indictment charging financial misdeeds — and cryptically referring to “misconduct” against an unnamed individual. A person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press Friday that Hastert paid the individual in an apparent effort to conceal decades-old allegations involving sexual misconduct.

It’s a stunning development for the former pol, who rose from obscurity to become the most powerful Republican in Congress for eight years, even as he mostly shunned the limelight. He faded quickly from view after leaving Congress in 2007.

“The Denny I served with worked hard on behalf of his constituents and the country,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement. “I’m shocked and saddened to learn of these reports.”

Hastert was propelled to the speakership in 1998 on the tumultuous December day on which the House impeached President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair. During the raucous debate, the presumptive speaker, Bob Livingston of Louisiana, stunned the political world as he announced he would step down over revelations of his own marital infidelities.

Hastert rose from the junior ranks of leadership in large part because he was without controversy, unlike other contenders such as Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the politically toxic driving force behind Clinton’s impeachment. Hastert was a behind-the-scenes operative whose political identity came from small-town Illinois, where he was a high school wrestling coach and teacher before serving in the state House and then Congress.

“They do call me ‘the Coach’ on the Hill, and I guess one of my roles is to put other people out there in the limelight,” Hastert said at the time, adding that his role was to “move an agenda forward and bring people together.”

For eight years, Hastert was a steady hand guiding House Republicans as they held narrow House majorities. Time and time again, he delivered for President George W. Bush, helping drive major legislation cutting taxes and creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit into law.

Hastert overcame early perceptions that DeLay, known for his hardball tactics, was the real power in the House. The Illinois lawmaker earned the respect and loyalty of colleagues throughout GOP ranks, playing “good cop” to DeLay’s “bad cop.”

“There’s clearly a division within the conference between moderates and the right, and he can bridge that better than anyone,” former Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., said at the time.

Rumpled and low-key, Hastert was anything but the polarizing force of his Republican predecessor, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, or his own Democratic successor, Nancy Pelosi of California.

“He was viewed as so boring and vanilla, we barely even mentioned him in our communications against Republicans,” recalls Democratic operative Doug Thornell.

But in 2006, Hastert became embroiled in an election-season controversy involving his handling of a scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who had been discovered sending inappropriate emails and sexually explicit instant messages to former House pages. Hastert was among the GOP lawmakers who knew of the contacts, and the House Ethics Committee concluded that he and his aides had known about some of the messages and hadn’t responded aggressively.

The Foley scandal, coming on the heels of indictments of lawmakers such as DeLay and Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., on other matters, was a tipping point in the election that delivered control of Congress to Democrats. Hastert resigned his seat the following year.

Now, Hastert is facing charges that he broke banking laws and lied to the FBI to conceal efforts to deliver a promised $3.5 million in hush money to someone cryptically identified in Justice Department documents as “Individual A” to keep Hastert’s “prior misconduct” against that person a secret.

The person familiar with the matter said the payments were an apparent effort to conceal allegations of sexual misconduct. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing and the allegations are not contained in the indictment issued Thursday.

The specific nature of the allegations was not immediately clear.

The indictment doesn’t say what wrongs Hastert is alleged to have done to Individual A to merit a multimillion-dollar payoff, but it takes note that Hastert used to be a high school teacher and coach and says he has known the individual most of his or her life.

Financial disclosures from 2006 showed Hastert’s wealth, including assets between $1 million and $5 million in North Star Trust Company, then a Chicago-based financial institution. He also owned several properties, including a one-third share in a 126 acre farm in Kendall County, Illinois, worth from $1 million to $5 million, and he reaped profits from transactions involving property in the rapidly growing Chicago exurbs.

In all, his 2006 disclosure forms show, Hastert listed from $1.1 million to $5.3 million in bank and stock holdings, and an additional $3 million to $12 million in property. The disclosures don’t provide exact figures; rather they show a range of values.

Colleagues and confidants were rocked by the indictment.

“Anyone who knows Denny is shocked and confused,” said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

“There’s nobody here who derives any pleasure from reading about the former speaker’s legal troubles,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

Hastert has yet to comment or make a statement. He resigned Thursday from the law firm of Dickstein Shapiro, where he’s been a lobbyist since 2008.


Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Ronnie Greene and Erica Werner contributed to this report.


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