Disgraced former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) is expected to walk into a federal courthouse Wednesday morning in downtown Chicago and plead guilty to charges that stemmed from an alleged agreement to pay out millions of dollars in hush money to a mysterious “Individual A.”
And people who have watched the case told TPM on Tuesday that thanks to the plea deal with federal prosecutors, reports of sexual misconduct against one of Hastert’s former students will remain vague—at least for now.
The former House speaker’s sudden indictment at the end of May shook the political world. The indictment itself was rather banal, charging Hastert with a count of structuring bank withdrawals to avoid detection and a count of lying to the FBI about those withdrawals. Hastert allegedly agreed to pay $3.5 million to “Individual A” to compensate for “prior misconduct” against that person, according to the indictment. Notably, the indictment referenced Hastert’s tenure as a teacher and wrestling coach at a high school in Yorkville, Illinois prior to his election to Congress. It also specified that “Individual A” resided in Yorkville for much of his or her life and knew Hastert for most of his or her life as well.
A shocking subtext for the indictment quickly emerged. Within days, news outlets reported that the “prior misconduct” was sexual abuse and that “Individual A” had been a male student at the Yorkville, Illinois high school where Hastert taught when the alleged abuse occurred. The reports drew their information from anonymous federal law enforcement sources.
Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor and an adjunct law professor at George Washington University, told TPM that he believed the potential for more information about the alleged misconduct to come out at trial was a driving force behind Hastert’s plea deal.
“Whether ‘Individual A’ would have testified, I have no idea of the nature of any understanding or agreement with ‘Individual A’ was. That’s kind of an unknown,” Eliason said. “But I think the one thing you can say with confidence is that the plea deal is the best chance that Hastert has of preventing all the rest of this from coming to light.”
A plea deal was in the best interests of both the prosecution and the defense because a trial would have forced a likely reluctant “Individual A” to testify, according to Michael Helfand, a Chicago attorney who runs a legal guidance and lawyer referral service and is following Hastert’s case. Helfand told TPM he thought “Individual A” would have been a necessary linchpin for the prosecution’s case if there were no plea deal.
“Certainly ‘Individual A’ would have to be a part of a trial,” he said. “The government is trying to present the most airtight case they can present.”
Hastert was not charged for the misconduct alluded to in the indictment. But if the reports of sexual misconduct are true, Eliason suggested that federal prosecutors would be justified in pursuing the banking-related charges if they thought the structured cash withdrawals were a “cover-up” for misconduct that occurred years earlier and could not be prosecuted.
“If there’s an ongoing course of misconduct that includes some earlier, prior bad acts and then later, subsequent attempts to cover them up, sometimes the interest of justice can be served by prosecuting the cover-up crimes even if the earlier misconduct is now too old to be prosecuted separately,” he told TPM.
Details of Hastert’s plea deal have not been made public. But Helfand told TPM there was a possibility the alleged misconduct could come into play in the former House speaker’s sentencing.
“The biggest thing with the involvement of the minor student is it could be considered an aggravating factor,” Helfand said. He added that in striking the plea deal, Hastert’s attorneys would want to ensure that such information did not come out during sentencing.
Both Eliason and Helfand agreed that the identity of “Individual A” and the nature of the “prior misconduct” against that person will be buried, at least in a legal sense, with Hastert’s expected guilty plea.
That doesn’t preclude “Individual A” or another person with knowledge of the alleged misconduct from coming forward publicly in the future, however. That’s what Jolene Burdge, the sister of an alleged sexual abuse victim, did on the heels of Hastert’s indictment. Burdge told ABC News that her deceased brother, Steve Reinboldt, confided in her back in the 1970’s that Hastert had sexually abused him for years while he managed the Yorkville High School wrestling team.
But until more alleged victims come forward or Hastert addresses the sexual abuse allegations himself, a case that landed with a bang and brought to light decades-old rumors appears set to come to a quiet conclusion today.
Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.