Policy

Hastert and Congress: 'How Did We Miss It?'

Despite public meltdowns and ethics allegations, Hastert kept his "good guy" reputation on Capitol Hill

Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

The secret that Jolene Burdge tried to reveal in 2006 was explosive. It would have ended the career of one of the most powerful men in America. No one would listen.  

That secret, that Burdge was convinced that then-House Speaker J. Dennis “Denny” Hastert had molested her brother in the 1970s, will be a centerpiece to Hastert’s very public reckoning on Wednesday, when he is sentenced in Chicago on charges related to the $1.7 million in payments he made to another alleged victim.  

It will be the fullest public accounting of the years when prosecutors say Hastert victimized members of the wrestling team he coached in a small Illinois town before he became a congressman and rose to the top of the Republican Party.  

The question central to the story, though, has yet to be answered: How was Hastert able to keep his secret for so long? Even today, those closest to him on the Hill and in Yorkville, Ill. — both small, insular communities — insist they never had any reason to doubt his reputation as a family man and congenial, if somewhat boring, party stalwart.  

[Related: In Denny Hastert's Hometown, from Hero to 'He Who Shall Not Be Named'] The answer lies at least in part in what happened when Burdge and perhaps one other victim tried long ago to raise an alarm. It lies in the nature of power and its tendency to make people want to believe the best about those who wield it. And it lies in the parochial mentality of Yorkville and the Hill.  

“That’s the culture of the small town, because of who he was and the power that he wielded,” Burdge said. “He had everyone convinced he was such a great guy.”  

Somehow, despite public meltdowns, guilt by association as lieutenant to the controversial Tom DeLay (whose later conviction on money laundering charges was eventually overturned) and multiple allegations of ethics lapses of Hastert's own, the former speaker maintained his good reputation.  

But even at the height of Hastert's power, serious questions were raised about his judgment — his refusal to renounce misconduct by his colleagues and his own financial transactions that made him millions of dollars.

Hush money

   

It took a federal investigation into Hastert’s unusually high cash withdrawals to finally bring Burdge’s story to light.  

In the spring of 2015, Hastert was charged with lying to the FBI and evading banking regulations in an attempt to hide his promised payments of $3.5 million in hush money. Prosecutors say he was trying to conceal his sexual abuse of a male student at the Yorkville high school where he taught and coached in the 1970s.  

That student, identified as "Individual A" in court records, is one of at least four victims prosecutors say they have identified. That person filed a lawsuit Monday  saying Hastert failed to pay him the full $3.5 million promised. And he could face jail time on the banking charges.  

[Related: Alleged Hastert Abuse Victim Sues for $1.8M] The former speaker's attorney said in a statement last week : "Hastert acknowledges that as a young man he committed transgressions for which he is profoundly sorry."  

There is no evidence that anyone but Burdge and Hastert’s alleged victims had direct knowledge of any sexual misconduct. Former members of Hastert’s staff, members of Congress and Democratic Hill staffers contacted in recent days said they never had any reason to suspect Hastert and have trouble believing the reports even now.  

“What I’m hearing about just seems so out of character, that’s why it’s baffling so many people,” said Peter Vroom, who worked for Hastert from 1986 to 1991, five of those years as his chief of staff. “It was just a separate life.”  

That's not to say that no one in Washington ever doubted him; former North Carolina congressman Mel Watt, now the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, confirmed in June that “someone” had approached him with “an unseemly rumor” about Hastert around 15 years ago. Watt said in a June statement that it was one of countless rumors brought to him during his tenure, and he took no action. His spokeswoman, Corinne Russell, said last week that Watt would not comment further.  

A former Republican House member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Hastert's current legal troubles have caused many to second-guess their assessment of the former speaker.  

“He was the hero coach and no one wanted to believe it,” the former member said. “It was not part of the rumor mill on the Hill. There wasn’t even false talk about him, and now everybody is so embarrassed; how did we miss it?”

An illusion shattered

   

To all outward appearances, Stephen Reinboldt was one of Hastert’s many admirers. He was the equipment manager on the wrestling team, a gangly, good-natured boy with a troubled family life, one of many students Hastert mentored.  

Hastert called Reinboldt his “right-hand man” in a 1971 yearbook inscription published by ABC News. Burdge saw Hastert as a “father figure” to her older brother, she said.  

But in 1979, Reinboldt told Burdge that he had his first sexual experience with Hastert, a relationship that he said continued throughout high school.  

“I never doubted my brother,” Burdge said, though his allegations forced her to question her own previous assumptions about Hastert.  

Burdge kept her brother’s secret until Reinboldt died in 1995. Then, determined to confront Hastert, she followed him to the parking lot after her brother’s wake and told him she knew the truth. Hastert put his hands in his pockets and did not respond, she has said.

Climbing to the top

   

By that time, Hastert seemed unassailable, Burdge said. He had climbed from well-liked social studies teacher and wrestling coach to the Illinois statehouse and then to Congress, where he was elected to his first term in 1987 and eventually served eight years as House speaker, the longest term any Republican has served.  

Hastert spent his early days on the Hill cultivating relationships, eventually becoming the deputy to DeLay, who was then the majority whip.  

The remarkable ascent was capped in 1998, when a series of scandals knocked out the top contenders for House speaker. After the party’s disappointing showing in the midterm election, Speaker Newt Gingrich announced he would quit Congress. Republicans initially chose Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana to step into the top job. But then, on the same day the House voted to impeach then-President Bill Clinton for covering up his sexual transgression, Livingston dropped the bombshell that he had engaged in an extramarital affair and would resign from Congress.  

DeLay — deemed too toxic to take the job himself — turned to Hastert as a safe and reliable pick. Hastert was the first person in 80 years to ascend to the speakership without holding another elected leadership job first. His rise to the top post was the fastest since 1891.  

Members relied on their personal relationships and press reports to assess Hastert's fitness for the job, said his fellow Republican Joel Hefley, of Colorado, who served with him. “If you find that there’s a problem with someone you change the speaker; it’s not a big deal to do that.”  

Mike Stokke, Hastert’s former deputy chief of staff, said Hastert was seldom alone, since he was accompanied by a 24-hour Capitol Police protection detail while he was House speaker.  

“We had people follow us,” Stokke said. “We had people arrested for following us. It was pretty constant.”  

Democrats saw Hastert as a noncontroversial figure, too -- because they assumed he wasn't calling the shots, said one leadership aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity.  

"He was just a figurehead," the Democratic staffer said. "No one ever thought he was in charge. He was just the speaker because Tom DeLay couldn't be speaker."  

Though the accidental nature of his speakership limited the vetting process, questions did emerge about Hastert during his tenure. In 2006, the Sunlight Foundation reported that he had made millions by selling farmland near the site of a proposed highway that he himself had earmarked as speaker. In 2005, Vanity Fair reported that an FBI whistle blower had overheard taped conversations in which Turkish officials said they gave payments to Hastert. Neither of these serious allegations appears to have led to a House Ethics Committee probe. (Not all activities of the committee are made public.)  

Hastert was, however, frequently faulted for failing to condemn his colleagues' ethical lapses.  

When the House Ethics Committee issued a series of reprimands against DeLay, Hastert replaced three members of the committee. When DeLay ultimately resigned in disgrace in early 2006, Hastert offered almost nothing in the way of public disapproval.  

Criminal behavior that ended the careers of two other senior House Republicans, Ohio’s Bob Ney and California’s Randy “Duke” Cunningham, also drew little public outrage from the speaker.  

Yet Hastert did display flashes of a fearsome temper, once berating a staffer in front of a group of his colleagues so forcefully that one witness — the Republican member who spoke on the condition of anonymity — said he was embarrassed to watch. Then Hastert "snapped back like nothing had happened," the former congressman said.  

"This was so visceral and intense like I’d never seen in my life, before or since," the member said. "I thought at the time that was weird and compartmentalized, but I didn’t know what it was," he said, just as some residents in Hastert's hometown also say there'd been something "off" that they couldn't quite name.

A scandal in Congress

   

In 2006, Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley resigned after news that he had sent sexually explicit text messages to House pages. Hastert and members of his staff had been approached several times with concerns about Foley’s conduct, but Hastert had not conducted or ordered any investigation.  

Democrats seized on Hastert's inaction as an example of what they saw as the "culture of corruption" in the GOP. A few obscure blogs printed theories about Hastert's own background — gossip about his sexuality and chatter that his wife stayed in a hotel when she visited him in Washington — but nothing broke into mainstream coverage.  

Matt Miller, who was a Democratic press aide during the Foley scandal, said that if anyone in his party had an inkling of Hastert’s past, it would have come out then.  

“When the Hastert scandal broke it was the first thought in my mind,” Miller said. “Was that the reason he acted the way he did during the whole Foley scandal?”  

Burdge said the Foley scandal convinced her that she had to come forward. She wrote letters to an advocacy group for victims of priest sex abuse, a prominent defense attorney who had tried several sex abuse cases, ABC News and Oprah Winfrey’s media company. She told all of them that she knew why Hastert hadn’t delved more deeply into complaints about Foley.  

Only, Burdge was afraid to allow the news organizations to use her name, and she did not want to take on someone of Hastert’s caliber without support. “I didn’t know what could happen to me,” she said. “I didn’t know if I had any rights.”  

Unable to quote her by name, the news organizations balked. Asked why ABC did not air Burdge’s claim at the time, spokeswoman Caragh Fisher referred to a story the network published in June, saying it could not corroborate Burdge’s story and that Hastert denied her claim. The Associated Press also reported in June that it had contacted Burdge after receiving a tip, but Burdge would not go on the record. A spokeswoman for the Oprah Winfrey Network did not return a request for comment.  

Defense attorney Jeff Anderson and victims advocate Barbara Blaine both said they believed Burdge’s story, but there was little they could do. Reinboldt was dead, and the Illinois statute of limitations had expired decades earlier.  

“We didn’t have any way to expose him or do anything with it,” said Blaine, who leads SNAP , the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests.  

Anderson said at least one other person had come to him with similar allegations about Hastert.  

“I thought the information given to us in the strictest of confidence was credible, was serious and deserved serious attention,” Anderson said. Still, “there was little or nothing that could be done given the information received.”

The Aftermath

   

Back in Washington, a nine-week Ethics Committee inquiry into Hastert's handling of the allegations about Foley concluded that Hastert had broken no rules, but did take him to task for failing to do more to protect the pages.  

By that time, the GOP had lost its majority in the House and Hastert had no choice but to leave the speaker's post. A year later, he resigned his seat.  

The House instituted some changes, though not directly because of the Foley scandal. An independent Office of Congressional Ethics was introduced in 2008 to review complaints against lawmakers filed by outside groups and individuals who aren't elected. And the page program was eliminated in 2011, officially because of technological advances that had rendered it obsolete.  

Hastert retired to Illinois and became a lobbyist. The Chicago Tribune reported in 2012 that after retiring, Hastert used a government-funded office for his own private business, costing taxpayers $1.8 million.  

By then, Burdge had retreated, convinced no one would ever know her story. Then an FBI agent called her last spring to ask what she knew about Dennis Hastert.  

David Hawkings contributed to this report. Contact Akin at stephanieakin@cqrollcall.com and contact her on Twitter at @stephanieakin. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.