Chicago Tribune: Hastert pleads guilty. What’s the rest of the story?

OCT. 29, 2015 — “I didn’t want them to know how I intended to spend the money. I withdrew the money in less than $10,000 increments.”

That was the explanation former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert offered Wednesday to a federal judge for why Hastert was in court, why he was pleading guilty, why his career and his public standing had crashed and burned.

It sounds so mechanical, so bloodless.

It leaves so much unsaid, unexplained.

Starting with: Was the longest-serving Republican speaker of the U.S. House a sexual predator? Who were his victims? How many were there?

The crime to which Hastert confessed is illegally structuring cash withdrawals to evade financial reporting requirements, a felony.

The by now well-known, if hardly well-understood, backstory — Hastert allegedly agreed to pay $3.5 million in hush money to conceal long-ago sexual misconduct involving a student at a suburban Chicago high school — was left unexamined in court.

As Hastert exited the federal building and climbed into a waiting SUV, a reporter yelled, “Do you have anything to say to the public?”

Hastert didn’t answer. Of course he didn’t. He was willing to pay millions, and break the law to do so, to guard his secret.

In exchange for Hastert’s guilty plea, federal prosecutors agreed to recommend a prison sentence of six months or less and to drop a second charge of lying to the FBI. They did not provide new details about the underlying misconduct Wednesday, nor did they require Hastert to come clean.

Is this supposed to go down in history as the time a former House speaker went to prison for moving his money around in fishy ways? That’s not what this case is about, and everybody knows it. The feds made sure of that.

Cash withdrawals of $10,000 or more trigger a federal reporting requirement that’s meant to make it hard for drug traffickers and other criminals to launder money. To evade that requirement, Hastert made 106 withdrawals under the threshold in 2 { years. Questioned by the FBI, he said he didn’t trust the banking system and was putting the cash in a safer place.

The feds didn’t believe him. So they dug, and they discovered a dark secret, a deep betrayal of public trust.

Prosecutors dropped broad hints about that secret in their indictment. Federal law enforcement sources leaked even more to reporters.

Was their aim to punish Hastert by shaming him for misdeeds that were too old to prosecute? Or to pressure him into pleading guilty to the charges they thought they could prove? Both of those things happened. But if he was a sexual predator, he’s getting away with astonishingly light punishment.

What’s still missing is a full accounting of the part of the story that matters most — the part that happened during the 16 years that Hastert was a teacher and wrestling coach.

It was during that time that he allegedly sexually abused the person identified in the indictment as “Individual A.” The sister of a second alleged victim who is now deceased says her brother also was sexually abused by Hastert during high school.

Prosecutors say they’ll provide the judge with “relevant information about the defendant’s background” before sentencing, which is set for February. Hastert’s attorneys likely will continue to fight to withhold details from the public.

The judge should air everything possible at sentencing.

Hastert once held the third-highest elected office in the nation. He pleaded guilty to a crime much less serious than the one prosecutors couldn’t or wouldn’t pursue. It’s fair to ask why they didn’t, and fair to demand assurances that they determined the full scope of his misconduct before disposing of the case with a plea that will net him six months or less.

This isn’t about money laundering. It’s about history.

By Chicago Tribune