The strange case of Dennis Hastert

I am in Washington, DC for a conference and so read the hard-copy version of the local paper the Washington Post. One thing about reading the hard copy is that one tends to go through the entire paper rather than zeroing in on the main topics you are interested in when you read it online. The big story today was the indictment of the former speaker of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert, who retired from Congress in 2007 and (surprise!) became a high-paid lobbyist.

With the usual caveat that an indictment is just an accusation and nothing more, the story is a strange one. He is accused of evading a law that requires banks to report money transfers of greater than $10,000, a policy introduced to detect laundering of drug money. He repeatedly withdrew sums slightly below that amount, to the tune of $950,000, with amounts of $100,000 per month during 2014. Why? According to the indictment, it was part of a plan to pay $3.5 million to an unnamed person to cover up “past misconduct.”

Who is this mysterious person and what was the reason for the payments? The indictment does not say except to say that it “occurred years earlier” than the 2010 meeting that started the payments. What the indictment suggests is that he is the victim of blackmail. But the fact that the blackmailer’s name is being kept confidential suggests that he is keeping hidden something that is embarrassing but may not itself be illegal.

There are other strange facts especially that when Hastert entered Congress in 1987, he had a net worth of at most $270,000 but when he left twenty years later he had between $4 million and $17 million. That amounts to increases in worth between $200,000 to $850,000 per year, with even the lower figure being well above his annual congressional salary. So either his wife was earning a huge amount of money or he is one helluva financial wizard when it comes to investing.

There are the usual testimonial on his behalf that people give to powerful friends, that they cannot believe that he would be involved in something illegal. But while it is true that what is a scandal in the US is not what is illegal but what is legal, there are enough cases in which politicians have been caught in actual illegal activities that this indictment should shock no one.

Glenn Greenwald writes that Hastert is emblematic of all that is sleaziest about our corrupt political class and does not deserve any sympathy for the things he did while serving as a congressperson. But his case does illustrate the over-criminalization in the US that results in people facing the threat of being sent to prison for non-violent offenses that may not warrant it. But what happens is that if you are poor and/or a person or color and/or have no influential friends you are likely to be sent to prison for a long time while if you are rich and white and have influential friends, then you will get off with a slap on the wrist, as one can see from the way that Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou, and Stephen Kim were treated compared to David Patraeus.

As Greenwald concludes in the case of Hastert:

What we have here is a classic case of the warped American justice system. Hastert’s seriously bad and corrupt acts will remain unpunished. And the acts for which he is being punished, at least as laid out in the indictment, are not seriously bad and corrupt. One can harbor contempt for Hastert (as I do) while still recognizing the disturbing aspects of the U.S. justice system revealed by his indictment.

UPDATE: The internet never forgets and someone unearthed this strange exchange from back in 2004.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The current rumor implies that Hastert should take up holy orders:

    The official who spoke to the Los Angeles Times added that the misconduct dates back to Hastert's time as a high school teacher and coach in Yorkville, Illinois, where "Individual A" is from, and that Hastert was making the payments to conceal a past sexual relationship with him. A second anonymous official told the newspaper that the "misconduct" alleged in the indictment was sexual abuse.

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