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Dennis Hastert has a history of keeping secrets

Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert gives an interview to FOX News during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.
Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert gives an interview to FOX News during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

It was nearly 6 am on a late November morning in 2003 when House Speaker Dennis "Denny" Hastert bustled out of the House chamber to catch up with Butch Otter.

The vote on a bill creating Medicare Part D had been open for almost three hours as Republican leaders tried in vain to flip a handful of "no" votes and deliver the centerpiece of President George W. Bush's domestic agenda. Hastert, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson spent all that time twisting arms on the House floor. Otter, a prime target because he would want the party's support if he ran for governor, had decided to flee the pressure cooker.

But Hastert didn't play hardball. There was no threat of deep-sixing Otter's political future, nor was there any offer of an earmark or campaign contribution. Instead, he appealed to Otter's desire not to disappoint him.

"Give us a chance to try to reform something," Hastert said. Otter and Rep. Trent Franks changed their votes, sending the bill to the president.

The moment was classic Hastert, a former wrestling coach who tried to instill a sense of teamwork among House Republicans when DeLay, known as "the Hammer," was the party's enforcer. DeLay had hand-picked Hastert, his deputy at the time, for the speaker's job after Robert Livingston, the presumed successor to Speaker Newt Gingrich, stepped aside in 1998 because of an extramarital affair.

The political world was let in on another classic Hastert trait on Thursday, one that last came to light in 2006 during the Mark Foley scandal: he keeps secrets.

On Thursday, he was indicted on charges that he illegally evaded financial transaction reporting requirements to conceal payments he made to an unidentified individual against whom he is alleged to have perpetrated "past misconduct." The indictment does not describe the alleged misconduct, but it does note that the other person has known Hastert for most of the other person's life and that Hastert was a teacher and coach in Yorkville, Illinois, before he was elected to public office.

The indictment, in which Hastert was also charged with making false statements to the FBI, identifies the other person only as "Individual A." When Hastert was confronted with the question of what he did with hundreds of thousands of dollars he withdrew from banks, he told the FBI, "I kept the cash," according to the indictment. Instead, the government alleges, Hastert agreed to give Individual A $3.5 million in hush money and was using the withdrawn cash to make payments.

Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker in House history, has been one of Washington's premier lobbyists since he retired following 2006 midterm election losses that gave Democrats control of the chamber. Shortly before the election that year, news media reported that Foley had sent sexually suggestive text messages to former House pages — teenagers who served as assistants to members of Congress until the termination of the program several years ago. Republican leaders, including Hastert, had been aware of Foley's contact with pages. An ethics committee report concluded Hastert had been told, "at least in passing," about the messages and that he and his aides had failed to intervene.

Foley, who resigned his seat amid the scandal, was investigated by the FBI and Florida authorities but never charged with a crime.

Hastert, who was first elected in 1986, carved out a reputation for himself as an expert on health care as a member of what was then called the Commerce Committee. He was a prominent voice against the Clinton administration's health-care reform effort in 1993. Then he ran DeLay's campaign for whip when Republicans won control of the House for the first time in four decades in 1994, settling into the role of DeLay's chief deputy vote counter. DeLay then essentially promoted Hastert to speaker four years later when Gingrich and Livingston stepped aside.

In one of their rare public disagreements, Hastert and DeLay took opposite sides on gun control legislation following the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. Hastert worked on a package of gun control provisions only to watch DeLay sink it on the House floor. But they made a formidable team in keeping Republicans unified with narrow majorities in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

During the first six years of the Bush administration, Hastert guided his agenda through the House — from the Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind laws to the Iraq War resolution and tax cuts on individual and investment income. He resigned from the House in 2007 and became a lobbyist at the Washington firm Dickstein Shapiro, where his clients included Illinois real estate developer Centerpoint Properties, tobacco company Lorillard, and energy firms. He resigned from Dickstein Shapiro upon being indicted.