CHICAGO — A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert to one year and three months in federal prison — a term above what prosecutors had recommended and one that clearly took into account the sexual abuse allegations that generated the criminal case against the Illinois Republican.
Prosecutors called the sentence a “day of reckoning” for a man who was once a revered high school teacher and wrestling coach in Illinois and who ascended to the highest ranks of American politics. Even before the hearing, prosecutors had revealed in court filings how Hastert allegedly had molested or inappropriately touched five teenagers affiliated with the wrestling team he coached decades ago, and U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin on Wednesday forced him to acknowledge that abuse in specific terms.
The hearing, in a small courtroom packed with reporters and others, was an emotional one — highlighted by a tearful statement from a victim speaking publicly for the first time and a lengthy monologue from the judge that leveled sharp attacks at Hastert.
For his part, Hastert told the judge that he was “deeply ashamed” to be in court and was still “struggling to come to terms with events that occurred four decades ago.” He said that he “mistreated some of my athletes that I coached.”
“The thing I want to do today is say I’m sorry to those I have hurt and misled,” he said. “They looked to me, and I took advantage of them.”
Hastert, 74, who arrived at the courthouse in a wheelchair, was allowed to remain free until federal prison officials find a facility that can tend to his substantial health problems. As part of his sentence, he will have to undergo sex-offender treatment. He left the courthouse without talking to reporters.
Hastert did not plead guilty to any sex crimes. Rather, he admitted in October that he had withdrawn money in increments that would allow him to avoid having to report it — itself a crime carrying a maximum five-year sentence. The money, investigators would come to learn, was meant to buy the silence of a man who alleged Hastert had victimized him as a youth. That man said Hastert agreed to pay him $3.5 million.
In court, though, Hastert was forced to face abuse allegations in all their dark detail. Jolene Burdge — who has alleged previously that Hastert abused her now deceased brother, Steven Reinboldt, years ago — told Hastert how Reinboldt felt “betrayed, ashamed and embarrassed” by what had happened to him. She said she hoped by sharing his story publicly, she had become Hastert’s “worst nightmare.”
“You were supposed to keep him safe, not violate him,” Burdge said.
Scott Cross, 53, a married father of two, fought back tears as he told the judge how Hastert, who also is married and has two children, abused him during his senior year of high school. Cross, who wrestled on a team that Hastert coached and whose brother is a former Illinois legislator, said he “looked up to Coach Hastert. He was a key figure in my life.”
But one day after practice, when Cross stayed late to cut weight, he ended up alone with Hastert in a locker room, and Hastert offered him a massage.
Cross said that while he was lying on a training table, Hastert pulled down his shorts and touched him in a sexual way.
“I was stunned by what he was doing,” Cross said. Cross said he got up, left and “did not say anything to anyone.”
“As a 17-year-old boy, I was devastated,” he said. “I tried to figure out why Coach Hastert had singled me out.”
Prosecutors had shared the outlines of Cross’s story in sentencing papers — identifying him only as Individual D — but Wednesday marked the first time that he or any victim had shared their experience publicly. As Cross talked, Hastert sat motionless, his head tilted slightly toward the ground.
Cross, who works in financial services, said that he felt “pain, shame and guilt” for years and that he confided in his brother and wife about what happened only after the criminal case against Hastert emerged. He said he had trouble sleeping and working but that he came forward because he wanted the judge to know what happened and he wanted his children to know that “there’s an alternative to staying silent.”
“I wanted you to know the pain and suffering he caused me then, and still causes me today,” Cross said Wednesday.
Prosecutors had recommended that Hastert face zero to six months in prison, though in court and afterward, they said it was not a resolution that brought them any satisfaction. Defense attorneys had advocated for probation.
Durkin on multiple occasions called Hastert a “serial child molester,” though he noted he could not sentence him as such. He pressed Hastert to go beyond his admission that he “mistreated” his former students, asking him outright whether he had sexually abused them.
In some cases, Hastert was hesitant.
Of Cross, he said: “I don’t remember doing that, but I accept his statement.”
He acknowledged abusing another victim, but hemmed and hawed about Reinboldt. “It’s a different situation, sir,” Hastert said, before ultimately acknowledging that he had sexually abused Reinboldt.
Thomas Green, Hastert’s defense attorney, said Hastert did not seem to be “fully cognizant” of the abuse in some cases. In a statement after the hearing, he said: “Mr. Hastert accepts the sentence imposed by the court today. 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. 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.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Block said prosecutors would have charged Hastert with sex crimes, or referred him to their state counterparts, if not for the statutes of limitations. And he said they agreed to a plea deal in the case only because it spared a victim who did not want to be identified from having to take the witness stand at a trial.
“Trying to respect his decision was a driving force for us,” Block said.
U.S. Attorney Zachary T. Fardon said after the hearing that the outcome was “imperfect, but it’s what we get.” He said that had FBI and IRS investigators and federal prosecutors not pursued the matter so aggressively, “history would have told a lie.”
The investigation of Hastert started three years ago, when FBI and IRS investigators received a tip that he had been withdrawing money in suspicious amounts and was not being truthful with bank officials about the reason. Prosecutors said that investigators initially wondered whether Hastert was being extorted, and Hastert claimed as much after they interviewed him. He pointed the finger at a man he said was making false claims about sex abuse.
After listening to Hastert talk to the man he alleged was blackmailing him on a recorded call, though, FBI agents were skeptical. And when they interviewed the man, they concluded that he was making believable claims. Other victims emerged with similar stories.
All of those alleging that Hastert abused or touched them inappropriately were teenagers when the abuse occurred decades ago. The U.S. probation office found “no evidence of any sexual misconduct since approximately 1979,” which is before Hastert entered elective office, court filings show. Fardon said Monday that prosecutors had detailed all those they knew about in court.
That Hastert was able to avoid any such allegations becoming public is itself remarkable. He first entered state politics in Illinois in the early 1980s and was elected to fill the House seat of a mentor who had become ill. He served as speaker until 2007 — making him the longest-serving Republican to hold the office. After that, he became a lobbyist, and Durkin said Wednesday that at one point, he was earning $75,000 a month.
Hastert would appear to be the first former House speaker to be convicted and sentenced in a criminal case, though he would not be the first to be jailed. Robert M.T. Hunter, a 19th-century speaker who fought for the Confederacy after his speakership, spent time in a military prison, and Jonathan Dayton was charged with Aaron Burr for conspiring in treasonable projects, though he was never brought to trial, according to the House Office of History, Art and Archives website.
Hastert’s former students, athletes, staff members and others told The Washington Post that they saw no signs that Hastert was abusing anyone. Fardon said with his sentence, “The curtain has been pulled back.”
“We followed the case where it led. We brought the charges we could bring,” Fardon said. “And through that, Mr. Hastert’s legend and legacy are gone, and in its place, are a broken, humiliated man. That is as it should be.”