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Judge Signals Hastert’s Extortion Claim Could Hurt Him at Sentencing

Prosecutors Say Former Speaker Hastert Sexually Abused 4 Boys 2:22

The judge who will decide former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's fate signaled Wednesday that he's looking for a way to sentence him to more than the six months agreed to under a plea deal.

At a hearing in Chicago Federal Court, Judge Thomas Durkin pointed to a recent allegation by prosecutors that Hastert lied when he told FBI agents investigating his banking activity that he was being extorted over a false molestation claim.

"That's not conduct that's 40 years old. That's conduct that's a year old," Durkin said. "Among the aggravating factors in this case, that's a big one."

Hastert — who served as the Republican Speaker of the House from 1999 to 2007 — has asked for a no-jail sentence, expressing remorse for "transgressions" and highlighting his health problems. Prosecutors recommended a six-month sentence in accordance with the agreement Hastert made to avoid trial.

Image: Dennis Hastert
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert arrives Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Chicago. Paul Beaty / AP

In their presentencing memorandum, prosecutors for the first time laid out their claims that Hastert molested at least four boys while he was a teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville High School in Illinois in the 1960s and 1970s, before he became a politician.

They also revealed that when agents started asking questions in December 2014 about suspicious banking transactions, Hastert had his lawyers tell them that he was being shaken down for $3.5 million by an ex-student who concocted an allegation of inappropriate touching during a wrestling trip decades ago.

Prosecutors said that when agents began recording calls between Hastert and the former student, identified only as Individual A, they found his "tone and comments" were inconsistent with extortion and he did not make any threats.

"Defendant lied to the agents to conceal what the government later learned was the true reason he structured the withdrawals, which was to quietly compensate one of his sexual abuse victims," prosecutors said in the memo.

In papers unsealed Wednesday, Hastert's lawyers said the extortion claim should not be held against him because he "did genuinely fear what would occur if Individual A went public, and there is nothing to suggest this fear was unreasonable."

They attorneys also argued that Hastert's denial in February 2015 that he did not have inappropriate sexual conduct with students wrestlers did not impede the probe into his banking activity and thus shouldn't translate into more jail time.

In addition to Individual A, two other ex-wrestlers and the sister of the team's late equipment manager have accused Hastert of sexual abuse. One of them, known only as Individual D, and the sister, Jolene Burdge, intend to testify at Hastert's April 27 sentencing, according to prosecutors.

Image: Hastert in yearbook
Dennis Hastert in a Yorkville High School yearbook photo. NBC News

In a statement last week, Hastert's lawyers said "he acknowledges that as a young man he committed transgressions for which he is profoundly sorry. He earnestly apologizes to his former students, family, friends, previous constituents and all others affected by the harm his actions have caused.

"As stated in our sentencing memorandum, we note that for the last four decades he has made every effort to be a positive force in the lives of others.

"We also advised the Court that the profound humiliation and public shaming Mr. Hastert has and will continue to experience, coupled with the resulting isolation and abandonment he has endured, are already significant punishment and have undoubtedly contributed to his fragile medical condition. He accepts responsibility for his conduct, seeks no special consideration, and is prepared to receive the Court's sentence."

Hastert, 74, was never charged with sexual abuse because the statute of limitations had expired. He pleaded guilty to illegally structuring bank withdrawals under a plea deal that dispensed with a second charge that he had lied to investigators.