YORKVILLE, Ill. — Back in the days when Dennis Hastert was a celebrated wrestling coach, before he left this former rural backwater for power and wealth in Washington, he had a simple rule for success.
“No messing around,” recalled Carl Kick, 55, who wrestled for the future House speaker in the late 1970s, when Hastert was a social-studies teacher and coach at Yorkville High School. Kick and other former students said Hastert applied that rule rigorously: no one-on-one practice sessions, no playing favorites — and no inappropriate contact in the wrestling ring.
The uniformly positive memories of Hastert in this small but growing community 50 miles west of Chicago speak to the expanding series of mysteries surrounding the man who later became the longest-serving Republican speaker in House history but now faces a federal indictment. One of those mysteries was solved on Monday: A judge set Hastert’s first court appearance for Thursday, in federal court in Chicago.
Hastert, 73, was charged Thursday with violating banking laws and lying to the FBI in what authorities said was an effort to pay $3.5 million to an unnamed person to cover up “past misconduct.” The alleged misconduct involved sexual molestation of a male student back in Hastert’s teaching days in Yorkville, a federal law enforcement official said.
Although investigators are not focusing on the sexual-abuse allegations — since the actions occurred so long ago and Hastert is not expected to face further charges — one avenue of inquiry is trying to determine whether there were other victims, law enforcement officials said.
Criminal charges against public officials have not been uncommon in recent years, but there are, at this point, numerous unusual aspects to Hastert’s case. The former speaker, a visible presence in Washington for years and a high-paid lobbyist since his 2007 retirement from Congress, has disappeared from view since the charges were filed and has issued no statement in his defense.
Hastert’s longtime network of aides and associates in Washington remains bewildered by the lack of information, both about the nature of the sexual-abuse allegations and whether Hastert has even hired a criminal defense attorney. When a current or former public official is charged, usually an attorney representing the official quickly releases a statement defending his client. Yet no information has been made available about the identity of Hastert’s legal team.
In another unusual aspect of Hastert’s case, the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago had said initially that Hastert would be ordered to appear for arraignment at a “later date” in federal court but did not specify that date. Initial court appearances quickly follow an indictment in most federal cases.
On Monday, without explanation, U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin scheduled Hastert’s arraignment for 10 a.m. Thursday at Chicago’s federal courthouse.
Hastert is charged with scheming to mask more than $950,000 in withdrawals from various accounts — in violation of federal banking laws that require disclosure of large cash transactions — and then lying to the FBI about it.
Over five years, court documents said, Hastert withdrew about $1.7 million in cash from his various bank accounts — at one point in 2014 delivering $100,000 a month to the person in question, known as “Individual A.” That individual’s identity remains perhaps the biggest mystery yet.
Back in Illinois, recriminations began emerging as the charges against Hastert circulated. Wheaton College in suburban Chicago announced it has removed Hastert’s name from an academic research center named for him.
“In light of the charges and allegations that have emerged, the College has re-designated the Center as the Wheaton College Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy at this time,” the college said in a statement.
The previous name of the center — the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy — reflects the fond memories of Hastert in Yorkville. Those who knew him during his teaching and coaching years — from 1965 until 1981, when he left for politics — strained to reconcile the allegations with their experiences with Hastert.
Hastert had near-daily interactions with adolescent boys, whether on his wrestling team, through his social-studies classes at Yorkville High, or through the Explorer post he helped lead. He traveled with boys frequently, whether on Scouting trips to the Bahamas or wrestling trips to Colorado to learn new techniques.
But a half-dozen of Hastert’s wrestlers, fellow teachers and other Yorkville contemporaries interviewed in recent days all said they never heard even the barest suggestion of wrongdoing.
And most insisted that had there been any suggestion of impropriety, it would have been difficult to cover up in a tightknit farm town.
“Nothing like that was known by anyone around here, that’s for sure,” said David Corwin, whose family has ties to Hastert dating back 40 years. Corwin’s son, Scott, won a state title wrestling at 105 pounds under Hastert’s coaching. His brother, Bob, co-led the Explorer post with Hastert in the 1970s.
Kendall County — which includes Oswego, where Hastert grew up; Yorkville, where he taught; and Plano, where he has kept a home for decades — has emerged in recent years as one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties, spurred by demand for the large, inexpensive tract homes built on former farmland about 50 miles west of Chicago.
But in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a rural backwater, perhaps most notable for its leading role in the 19th-century invention of the mechanical harvester. Its population has grown more than fourfold since 1970, when about 27,000 people lived in the county and Yorkville High enrolled fewer than 600.
Tony Houle, 62, who was a teacher and an assistant wrestling coach at Yorkville High from 1975 until 1982 and has lived in the town ever since, said that he sees plenty of his students and colleagues from those years and that none have ever mentioned any concerns about Hastert. “I see them at the bar, and we drink, and you’d think somebody would tell a story,” Houle said. “You would think something would come up that would be a suggestion of an impropriety, but there never was.”
By the time Houle came to Yorkville, Hastert was well on his way toward establishing himself as a community fixture — mainly through the success of his wrestlers, who became small-town celebrities. Later, in his political life, his stint as a coach became central to his public identity.
“In the future, Mr. Hastert would like to get his doctorate,” reads the 1970 “Mi-Y-Hi,” the Yorkville High yearbook. “He also has big plans for Yorkville’s fine wrestling team.”
Hastert never earned the doctorate, but he did turn the Yorkville Foxes into the toast of the town, culminating in a 1976 team state championship.
Gary Matlock, who was Yorkville’s first state-champion wrestler, winning the 1973 title at 112 pounds, said Hastert was “just a real laid-back country boy” with a knack for harnessing the rough-hewn athletic skills of farm boys.
“It was just a little town, and then it became known for its wrestling,” he said. “You don’t want to say ‘king,’ but he put Yorkville on the map.”
Like several of Hastert’s former wrestlers, Houle went on to teach and coach high school wrestling. Houle credited Hastert with teaching him how to coach.
Houle said he has racked his brain trying to make sense of the allegations and is wondering whether, given the close-knit nature of the wrestling teams, the person Hastert is alleged to have paid hush money to was not a wrestler but another student.
“There’s one person who’s not surprised” by the indictment, Houle observed. “And that’s Individual A.”
Horwitz and Markon reported from Washington.