Former House speaker Dennis Hastert was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison on Wednesday for a hush money scheme after an emotional court hearing in which he admitted to abusing underage boys during his years as a high school teacher and wrestling coach.
Hastert, 74, said during his sentencing hearing in Chicago that he remembered abusing one of the four victims that prosecutors have identified but could not recall the others. He replied “yes” when Judge Thomas Durkin asked him outright if he committed the abuse, according to the Chicago Tribune .
“What I did was wrong and I regret it,” Hastert told the judge.
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Durkin took Hastert to task, saying, “Nothing is more stunning than having the words ‘serial child molester’ and ‘speaker of the House’ in the same sentence.” He said Hastert “abused those who couldn’t or wouldn’t cry out.” Hastert served as speaker from 1998-2006.
Prosecutors said Hastert molested at least four boys during his time as a wrestling coach in Yorkville, Ill., years before he served in public office. The statute of limitations has expired on those cases, but prosecutors charged him last year with paying money to one of the victims to cover up his misconduct.
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Durkin acknowledged Hastert’s poor health — the former congressman arrived and left the courthouse in a wheelchair — but said he would receive appropriate care while serving his sentence.
He also sentenced Hastert to two years of supervised release, ordered him to pay $250,000 to a victim fund and required him to undergo sex offender treatment.
For the first time, one of the victims was identified publicly as Scott Cross, the brother of former Illinois state Rep. Tom Cross, a longtime political ally of Hastert’s, according to the Chicago Tribune .
Scott Cross told the court he was sexually abused by Hastert, his wrestling coach, when he was a senior at Yorkville High School.
“It’s important for me to tell the truth finally about what happened to me,” he told the court. “I could no longer remain silent.”
Thomas Cross, Scott Cross’ father, told Roll Call the family had no comment.
But in a statement reported by the Tribune, the family said:
“We are very proud of Scott for having the courage to relive this very painful part of his life in order to ensure that justice is done today. We hope his testimony will provide courage and strength to other victims of other cases of abuse to speak out and advocate for themselves. With his testimony concluded, we ask now that you respect Scott’s privacy and that of our family.”
Another victim’s sister, Jolene Burdge, shared her late brother’s story with the courtroom, describing how Stephen Reinboldt told her his first sexual experience was with his high school wrestling coach, Hastert.
“I hope I have been your worst nightmare,” Burdge told Hastert, who sat mostly emotionless, according to Chicago Tribune reporters. “Don’t be a coward, Mr. Hastert. Tell the truth.”
Thomas Green, an attorney representing Hastert said the defense was not attempting to minimize his actions, acknowledging the abuse occurred decades ago. Green said Hastert made “poor decisions” to hide the allegations and that he was unable to process his past.
Green said after the hearing in a statement that Hastert accepted his punishment and took sole responsibility for a “tragic situation.” He also apologized to “all those affected by his actions.”
Hastert’s sentencing is harsher than what both prosecutors and defense attorneys asked for.
Attorneys for Hastert asked a judge to sentence him to probation only, citing poor health and the “humiliation and isolation” he and his family have experienced since the allegations came to light. Prosecutors asked Hastert to be sentenced to six months in prison.
Prosecutors said Hastert illegally structured money withdrawals from multiple banks to pay a man $3.5 million to keep quiet about sexual misconduct decades ago. The man, who has not been identified, received $1.7 million before federal authorities caught wind of Hastert’s banking activity.
The man is now suing Hastert for the rest of the money, arguing that he kept up his end of the verbal agreement by keeping quiet until he was questioned by law enforcement after Hastert alleged he was being extorted.
Hastert pleaded guilty in October to evading federal banking requirements.
Hastert was an accidental House speaker, picked for the job only after a number of high-ranking Republicans were felled by scandal. The Illinois Republican’s background went largely unchecked as he rose to power despite public meltdowns, guilt by association as lieutenant to the controversial House Whip Tom DeLay and multiple allegations of ethics lapses of Hastert’s own.
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. But the secret he kept from his days as a wrestling coach in Yorkville never came up publicly.