A somber Dennis Hastert appeared in court Tuesday for the first time since he was indicted, pleading not guilty to charges that he violated banking rules and lied to the FBI in a scheme to pay $3.5 million in hush money to conceal misconduct from his days as a high school teacher.
As his attorney entered the plea on his behalf, the 73-year-old former House speaker stood motionless, his hands folded and eyes downcast at the floor. When the judge asked if he understood he had to submit a DNA sample and that he could go to jail if he violated any conditions of his release, the man who was once second in the line of succession to the presidency, answered quietly, “Yes, sir.”
Hastert has not spoken publicly about the accusations that emerged two weeks ago and quickly raised questions about possible sexual abuse by the once-powerful Republican legislator from Illinois. Neither he nor his attorneys commented after the hearing.
The politician-turned-lobbyist was before Judge Thomas M. Durkin on charges that he evaded federal banking laws by withdrawing hundreds of thousands of dollars in smaller amounts and lying about the money when questioned.
As Tuesday's hearing began, Hastert reached into a coat pocket and pulled out his passport, handing it to his attorney, who turned it over to a court official. Surrendering foreign travel documents is another standard condition of release.
The former congressman was also ordered to have any firearms removed from his property by June 23 and was forbidden from having contact with victims or witnesses in the case.
The judge spent most of the 20-minute hearing explaining how he believed he had no conflict of interest in the matter but then giving prosecutors and defense attorneys until Thursday to say if they want him to stay on the case.
The issue came up because Federal Election Commission records indicate he donated $500 to the “Hastert for Congress” campaign in 2002 and $1,000 in 2004. Durkin was an attorney at a Chicago law firm at the time of the contributions.
Durkin cited those donations and that he knew Hastert's son from before he became a judge in 2012. But he also said that, to the best of his knowledge, he never met Hastert himself.
“I have no doubt I can be impartial in this matter,” the judge said.
Hastert appeared nervous as he sat at a defense table waiting for the hearing to start, rubbing his chin, biting his lip and occasionally scanning the courtroom benches packed with reporters. At one point, a defense attorney reached over and patted him on the shoulder.
His lead attorney, Thomas C. Green, is based in Washington and has represented clients in the Watergate, Iran-Contra and Whitewater cases. Chicago attorney John Gallo is also on Hastert's defense team. Steven Block is the lead U.S. prosecutor.
Prosecutors did not shed any more light on the secret Hastert allegedly sought to conceal by paying the person the indictment refers to as “Individual A.”
A person familiar with the allegations told The Associated Press that the payments were intended to conceal claims of sexual misconduct from decades ago. The person spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
If convicted, he faces a maximum five-year prison term on each of the two counts.
The indictment made public on May 28 says Hastert agreed in 2010 to pay Individual A $3.5 million to “compensate for and conceal (Hastert's) prior misconduct” against that person. It says he paid $1.7 million before federal agents began scrutinizing the transactions.
He allegedly started by withdrawing $50,000 at a time and changed course when automatic bank transaction reports flagged those withdrawals. The indictment says Hastert then began taking cash out in increments of less than $10,000 to skirt reporting rules, which are primarily meant to thwart money laundering by underworld figures.
It's not illegal to withdraw large amounts in cash. But it's against the law to structure the withdrawals with the intent of dodging reporting requirements.
Hastert follows a well-trodden path of other Illinois politicians who have walked through the revolving doors at Chicago's federal courthouse. Several recent Illinois governors, Chicago aldermen and other public figures have entered pleas in the same building. Among the most recent was former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, and former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican. Both men were eventually convicted on corruption charges.