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A man two heartbeats away from the presidency was a serial child molester

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert Sentenced In Bank Reporting Case
The disgraced speaker.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Former US House Speaker Dennis "Denny" Hastert has been sentenced to 15 months in federal prison. The actual charge that got him here was structuring currency transactions to evade currency transaction reports — that is, he withdrew cash from his bank accounts in increments of less than $10,000 each, in order to get around laws that mandate banks report transactions of $10,000 and over to the federal government. Hastert pled guilty to one count of structuring in October.

But that's not what the case was really about. What it was really about was Hastert's repeated molestation of male students as a teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville High School in suburban Chicago over 30 years ago. The feds just happened to catch him withdrawing cash improperly to pay as hush money to one of his former victims.

This isn't merely an allegation. Dennis Hastert, former third-ranking member of the US federal government, admitted in open court to molesting children. "I'm sorry to those I hurt and misled. First I wanted to apologize for the boys I mistreated when I was their coach," he said. "What I did was wrong and I regret it. They looked to me, and I took advantage of them."

Under questioning from federal judge Thomas Durkin, Hastert acknowledged sexually abusing at least three wrestlers.

"Nothing is more disturbing than having 'serial child molester' and 'speaker of the House' in the same sentence," Durkin said upon sentencing Hastert. The sentence — which also requires Hastert to pay $250,000, spend two years on supervised release, and register for sex offender treatment — was stiffer than that requested by prosecutors, who initially asked for zero to six months as part of his plea deal.

Hastert's victims

Initially, the indictment (above) didn't indicate why Hastert had been paying hush money. It only stated that he was paying off "Individual A" for "past misconduct." But it wasn't long before law enforcement sources leaked that Individual A was a former student of Hastert's. Hastert had molested the student in the 1970s and was paying him to keep quiet.

The prosecution made the context explicit after Hastert pled guilty and the court proceeded to sentencing, alleging that he molested at least four boys. Two of those boys' names are now public.

One week after the indictment, Jolene Burdge told ABC's Good Morning America that Hastert abused her late brother, Stephen Reinboldt, when Reinboldt was the wrestling team's student equipment manager. Burdge said she learned of the abuse when Reinboldt came out of the closet in 1979; she asked him what his first same-sex experience was, and he answered, "It was with Dennis Hastert." Her brother "never went into any details — where it happened, or what the sexual experiences were like, anything like that," she said, but she believed him entirely and believed the abuse changed his life for the worse.

Reinboldt died of AIDS in 1995; Hastert, then a member of the House leadership, attended the funeral where Burdge confronted him, saying, "I want you to know that your secret didn't die here with my brother."

The other named victim, Scott Cross, came forward more recently. He has said that he told no one about the abuse until after the indictment, when he started to tell his family — including his brother Tom Cross, a political protégé of Hastert's who served as the Republican House minority leader in Illinois from 2002 to 2013.

Cross testified at Hastert's sentencing hearing that in fall 1979, his senior year, he stayed late after practice. He told Hastert he was concerned about making weight for a coming match, and Hastert said that he could help Cross lose weight by giving him a massage. "After a few minutes, Coach Hastert told me to roll over onto my back," Cross said. "He pulled down my shorts, grasped my penis, and began to rub me. I was stunned by what he was doing. I jumped, pulled up my shorts, and ran out of the locker room … I felt intense pain, shame, and guilt."

Prosecutors named at least two other victims besides Cross and Reinboldt, and a third whose genitals Hastert touched but expresses uncertainty as to whether he was molested. There was a 14-year-old freshman who Hastert gave a massage to in a locker room, and then committed an unspecified sex act against ("Individual B" in the prosecution documents). The other, Individual A, reported that on a trip to wrestling camp, he complained about a groin pull, and Hastert said he wanted to check on it. Hastert "told Individual A to lie down on the bed and take off his underwear" and "began massaging Individual A's groin area":

It became clear to Individual A that defendant [Hastert] was not touching him in a therapeutic manner to address a wrestling injury but was touching him in an inappropriate sexual way. A few moments later, Individual A jumped off the bed, grabbed his underwear, and ran across the room to slouch in a chair.

Individual A was confused and embarrassed about his physical reaction to defendant's contact with him, and he apologized to defendant. Defendant then asked Individual A to get on his (defendant's) back and give him (defendant) a massage. Individual A was nervous about what had happened and what was going on and did not know what to do. Defendant lay on the bed in only his underwear, and Individual A gave him a back massage. They then went to sleep in the same bed.

In 2010, Individual A considered confronting Hastert, and made an appointment to ask why he did it; Hastert replied that "it was a confusing and difficult time in his life." Individual A asked how many other children Hastert molested; Hastert said there were only two, Individual A and one other. Individual A asked for $3.5 million in compensation.

This set in motion the chain of events leading to Hastert's arrest. Hastert withdrew about $1.7 million from 2010 to 2014 and provided it to Individual A. Initially, he made 15 withdrawals of $50,000 from 2010 to 2012 (for a total of $750,000), and gave money to Individual A every six weeks or so, but after bank representatives questioned him about the withdrawals he started taking out less than $10,000 at a time. That's how the structuring charges came about. Individual A has now filed suit for the $1.8 million Hastert had promised but has yet to pay. Hastert's employees insisted that his actions toward Individual A don't count as molestation, "especially for a coach and trainer 42 years ago."

Finally, a student the prosecution identifies as Individual C said that after he stayed late one day, Hastert offered him a massage: "Defendant told Individual C, who was wearing only a towel, to get up on a table. At some point, defendant told Individual C to turn over onto his back. Individual C's towel came off and his genitals were exposed. Defendant brushed his hand against Individual C's genitals, though Individual C does not know if it was on purpose. Individual C recalls that it was 'very weird' and made him uncomfortable. Individual C did not physically react to being touched by defendant, and at some point he got up and put on his clothes."

In court, Hastert was asked about Cross, Reinboldt, and Individual B, and confirmed abusing each of them, though he said he didn't remember abusing Cross:

"You said you mistreated athletes. Did you sexually abuse Mr. Cross?" Durkin asked.

"I — I don't remember doing that, but I accept his statement," Hastert said.

"Did you sexually abuse Victim B?" asked Durkin, referring to another former wrestler who accused Hastert of performing a sex act on him when he was 14.

"Yes," Hastert replied quickly.

"Alright. And how about Mr. Reinboldt? Did you sexually abuse him?" the judge asked.

After Hastert replied, "That was a different situation," Durkin said, "If you want to elaborate, now is the time to do it."

Hastert conferred with his lawyer.

"I — I would accept Ms. Burdge's statement," he then said haltingly.

"So you did sexually abuse him?" Durkin asked.

"Yes," Hastert replied.

How Hastert's colleagues are reacting

One unresolved question raised by Hastert's conviction is just how aware his colleagues in the House were of his past as a serial child molester. After the indictment, Mel Watt — now head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency and served as a Democrat in the House from 1993 to 2014 — said he had heard an "unseemly rumor" about Hastert but nothing more.

Other colleagues expressed shock. "I am absolutely floored by this," former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) told Politico's John Bresnahan. "I hope to God it’s not true." It's certainly shocking given Hastert's stated positions on these issues. In 2003, he called for "put[ting] repeat child molesters into jail for the rest of their lives."

There's also some irony in the fact that the structuring requirements that doomed him were part of the PATRIOT Act, passed while Hastert was speaker. The Chicago Tribune's Ted Gregory explains:

About seven months after that recollection, a bank teller supervisor contacted Hastert and said "the bank needed to understand his transactions pursuant to the PATRIOT Act," prosecutors state in their 26-page court filing. The filing also notes that Hastert crossed a bank officer who explained the institution needed information about Hastert's cash withdrawals to comply with the Patriot Act.

"Defendant stated that he was aware of the law," prosecutors wrote, "but that the PATRIOT Act was just for terrorism and he was not a terrorist."

And the revelations cast new light on Hastert's negligence in the case of Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL), who was revealed to have sent sexually explicit emails to an underage former congressional page. Here's Gregory again:

By the end of 2006, a House Ethics Committee investigating the Republican leadership's response to Foley's misconduct concluded that Hastert — then U.S. House speaker — failed to act on earlier warnings and was among many individuals who remained "willfully ignorant" of Foley's misbehavior.

Then-U.S. Rep. John Boehner, of Ohio, was one of those who spoke earlier to Hastert about Foley's misconduct. Boehner told the committee that Hastert had told him the matter "has been taken care of." No one was sanctioned for violating House rules in the case.

Somewhat shockingly, given that he's an admitted serial child molester, Hastert wasn't totally abandoned by his old colleagues after victims' testimonies started to trickle out. Tom DeLay — Hastert's whip and later majority leader, who many believed had been truly calling the shots in Hastert's House GOP caucus — recently gushed in a letter to the court urging leniency, "He has never disappointed me in any way. He is a man of strong faith that guides him. He is a man of great integrity. He loves and respects his fellow man. I have never witnessed a time when he was unkind to anyone. He is always giving to others and helping anyone including me so many times."

Form GOP Reps. Thomas Ewing, David Dreier, Porter Goss, and John Doolittle also sent letters to help him with sentencing. Dreier called him "one of the most dedicated and hard working public servants I've known." Goss, who left Congress to become CIA director, bemoaned what has become of the House without Hastert there: "Sadly, without his good influence today's House of Representatives appears diminished."

Leo Kocher, the head wrestling coach at the University of Chicago, wrote a letter praising Hastert for fighting implementation of Title IX, as Kocher believed the law's mandate of gender equality in athletics was a threat to wrestling programs. "The smart thing to do politically was not to touch this issue — no one benefits from being accused of being anti-female by the well-funded and media-savvy feminist groups," Kocher recalled. "But Denny did whatever he could … Denny Hastert is a good man — and is universally regarded as such by those who have gotten to know him."

Given that Scott Cross got to know him, "universally" might be a bit strong.

In any case, the letters weren't enough to spare Hastert a lengthy sentence. His surrender date when he will start serving that sentence has yet to be determined.

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