- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

In the tumultuous, sex-sodden months surrounding the U.S. House’s impeachment of President Clinton, it was Rep. J. Dennis Hastert’s squeaky-clean image that helped propel him to the rank of House speaker in 1999.

The man initially nominated for the job was forced out after disclosure of marital affairs, and Hastert’s scandal-free political pedigree and amiable nature earned him high praise from House Republicans.

The circumstances of the Illinois Republican’s rise to power have made his downfall — from eight years as the nation’s third-ranking elected official to a prison term and public humiliation as a sex criminal — all the more stunning.

“Nothing is more stunning than to have the words ‘serial child molester’ and ‘speaker of the House’ in the same sentence,” U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin said.

On Wednesday, Judge Durkin sentenced the 74-year-old former speaker to 15 months in prison. Hastert pleaded guilty last year to crimes related to his payment of hush money meant to keep quiet his sexual abuse of teenage boys during his time decades earlier as a high school teacher and wrestling coach.

Hastert admitted to violating bank laws for seeking to pay $3.5 million to a person to cover up past “misconduct.” The abuse dates back to the time Hastert was a teacher and wrestling coach at an Illinois high school. Hastert taught at Yorkville High School from 1965 to 1981 before entering politics.

At Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, held in a federal court in Chicago, Hastert for the first time admitted to sexually abusing former students, saying he “mistreated” athletes. He later went on to offer an apology to his victims, one of whom was present and spoke at the hearing.

“What I did was wrong, and I regret it,” Hastert said. “They looked to me, and I took advantage of them.”

One of the victims, 53-year-old businessman Scott Cross, said Hastert fondled him after offering to give him a massage while they were alone in a wrestling team locker room, according to reporters at the courthouse.

The former wrestler, whose brother is former Illinois state House Republican leader Tom Cross, described the incident in detail in court while struggling to hold back tears.

He said he fled from Hastert at the time and declined to tell anyone about the abuse. In the years since, he has sought professional help to cope with the incident.

Mr. Cross told reporters in Illinois that he decided to speak out at the sentencing hearing after Hastert reached out to his brother and asked whether the fellow politician might write a letter of support requesting leniency.

Hastert said he didn’t remember the incident but accepted Mr. Cross’ account.

Jolene Burdge, the sister of another Hastert victim, said her brother felt “betrayed, ashamed and embarrassed” by abuse from his wrestling coach throughout his years at Yorkville High School. Stephen Reinboldt died of AIDS in 1995.

“I hope I have been your worst nightmare,” Ms. Burdge told Hastert directly, demanding that he admit the truth.

Authorities said Hastert abused at least four students, ages 14 to 17, during his time at the school.

Prosecutors could not pursue sex abuse charges against Hastert because the statute of limitations on such charges had expired.

Zachary Fardon, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, called the sentencing imperfect. “But it’s what we’ve got,” he said.

Mr. Fardon praised the victims for coming forward and noted that “history would have told a lie” without their courage.

Mr. Hastert’s legend and legacy are gone, and in its place are a broken and humiliated man. That is as it should be,” Mr. Fardon said.

The case came to light as a result of large payments of cash that Hastert withdrew from his bank account.

When federal authorities interviewed him about the cash withdrawals, he initially told investigators that he was withdrawing money because he didn’t trust the banks. He later told investigators that he was being extorted by a person falsely accusing him of sexual abuse.

The person he accused turned out to be an actual victim who had come to an agreement with Hastert to stay silent about the abuse in exchange for $3.5 million. The person, referred to in court papers only as “Individual A,” told investigators that Hastert molested him at a hotel during a trip to a wrestling camp.

On Monday, Individual A filed a lawsuit saying he had been paid only about half of the money and is still owed $1.8 million.

Judge Durkin said he could not take the abuse into account in sentencing Hastert but did consider that the former House speaker tried to accuse the victim of blackmailing him when he got caught.

“Accusing Individual A of extortion was unconscionable,” Judge Durkin said. “He was a victim decades ago, and you tried to make him a victim again.”

As part of Hastert’s plea agreement, prosecutors suggested a sentence ranging from probation to six months in jail — though the judge could have doled out a sentence of up to five years behind bars. Defense attorneys, citing Hastert’s deep remorse and failing health, pushed for probation.

After Hastert pleaded guilty in October, he received a diagnosis of a rare blood stream infection and suffered a stroke while he was hospitalized. Hastert, who entered the courtroom in a wheelchair, is described as needing assistance with most daily activities, such as getting out of bed, getting dressed, going to the bathroom, and bathing.

“Since his indictment, Mr. Hastert’s work and his reputation have become forever tainted,” his attorney, Thomas Green, wrote in a sentencing memo arguing for probation. “Mr. Hastert has been stung by the public repudiations of him that followed his indictment, including the removal of his portrait from the United States Capitol, the removal of his name from the public landmarks for which he passionately fought and the characterization of his legacy as a ‘black eye’ on his country.”

Hastert declined to comment as he left the courthouse.

In a statement, Mr. Green said his client accepted the sentence.

“As he made clear in his own words in addressing the court, he takes sole responsibility for this tragic situation and deeply apologizes to all those affected by his actions,” Mr. Green said. “He hopes that he now can focus on addressing his health issues and on healing the emotional damage that has been inflicted on his family and friends who have shown unwavering support throughout this trying time.”

Hastert will report back to the court to begin his 15-month sentence once authorities secure a facility that can address his health issues.

In addition to the prison sentence, the judge ordered that Hastert spend two years on probation after he completes his sentence, undergo sex offender treatment and pay a $250,000 fine to a crime victims’ fund.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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