CHICAGO (AP) – Dennis Hastert pleaded guilty Wednesday to evading banking laws in a hush-money scheme, averting a trial by agreeing to a deal with federal prosecutors that recommends the former House speaker serve no more than six months in prison.
Before accepting the plea, the 73-year-old Republican was warned by the judge that he could go beyond the recommendation and give Hastert up to five years behind bars when he is sentenced in February.
Because the plea agreement has a sentencing range from no prison time to six months, U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin could also decide to put Hastert on probation or home confinement.
The plea helped seal the downfall of a man who rose from obscurity in rural Illinois to the nation’s third-highest political office. During his eight years as speaker, Hastert was second in the line of succession to the presidency.
As he stepped to the lectern to answer a series of questions, he spoke in a voice so soft that the judge at one point told him to speak up.
The hearing revealed no new details about why Hastert agreed to pay $3.5 million to an unidentified person. The indictment says the payments were meant to conceal past misconduct by Hastert against that person, but it does not explain the nature of the wrongdoing.
The Associated Press and other media, citing anonymous sources, have reported that the payments were meant to hide claims of sexual misconduct from decades ago.
At the half-hour hearing in Chicago, a subdued Hastert read from a brief written statement that – like his indictment – focused narrowly on how he technically broke banking laws.
By pleading guilty, Hastert avoids a trial that could have divulged the embarrassing secrets dating back to his days as a high-school wrestling coach that he presumably wanted to keep under wraps by paying hush money.
Judges are also generally more likely to give lighter sentences to defendants who accept responsibility for their actions and spare the government the cost of a trial.
In exchange for the plea, prosecutors were expected to drop a charge stemming from lying to the FBI.
When the judge asked Hastert to describe his wrongdoing in his own words, he read his statement, telling the court that he had been withdrawing $50,000 in cash at a time. After banking officials questioned him, he said, he began taking out less than $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements.
Speaking in a halting voice and losing his place in the text at one point, he described why he lied to officials: “I didn’t want them to know how I intended to spend the money.”
Hastert did not say why he required so much cash or why he sought to skirt reporting requirements. As he finished, the judge immediately asked: “Did you know that what you were doing was wrong?”
He responded, “Yes, sir.”
Sentencing was scheduled for Feb. 29.
Since the plea deal offers a wide punishment range, the sentencing hearing could include arguments from prosecutors on why Hastert should spend some time behind bars and from the defense about why he should be spared prison.
Asked by the judge if the government would call any witnesses at the sentencing, lead prosecutor Steven Block left open that possibility, saying the prosecution would decide at a later date.
Prosecutors could theoretically call to the witness stand the unnamed person Hastert was allegedly paying, a prospect that could make public the conduct Hastert sought to conceal.
The sentencing range is below what some legal experts had predicted. They thought prosecutors would press for six months to two years in prison.
When he arrived at the courthouse, Hastert moved through a crowd of waiting photographers and TV cameras. He walking slowly into court, his shoulders slightly stooped, and peered over his glasses at courtroom benches packed with journalists.
The change-of-plea hearing was the longtime GOP leader’s first court appearance since his arraignment in June, when he pleaded not guilty in the same courtroom.
A May 28 indictment accused Hastert of handing as much as $100,000 in cash at a time to someone referred to only as “Individual A.”
Hastert allegedly made 15 withdrawals of $50,000 from 2010 to 2012. It’s what he did later in 2012 that made his actions criminal. After learning withdrawals over $10,000 are flagged, he began taking out smaller increments, eventually withdrawing $952,000 from 2012 to 2014, according to the indictment.
Hastert was speaker longer than any other Republican. After leaving Congress in 2007, he parlayed his connections into a lucrative lobbying career. That career is almost certainly over.
As a convicted felon, “no congressman will want to meet with him about anything. His influence and power will be gone,” said Dick Simpson, a co-author of “Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism, and Criminality.”
Associated Press Writer Eric Tucker in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm .