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Dennis Hastert spoke in a whisper in a packed federal courthouse Tuesday — his first public appearance since authorities charged him last month with illegally evading banking rules and lying about it to the FBI.
But the former House speaker from Illinois — now embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal tied to his days as a high school wrestling coach — will have to come in loud and clear to bat away the allegations.
That's because Hastert is in the middle of a legal minefield with charges that are held up not only by an apparent paper trail, but by the 73-year-old former congressman's own mouth, legal experts told NBC News.
"The paper trail is not his biggest problem," said Paul Caron, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law. "The biggest problem is that he ran his mouth when first questioned by the FBI (last year), which opened himself up to these charges."
"Had he just shut up when questioned, the government would have a much more difficult time proving the (evading) charge," Caron added. "And the lying charge would disappear."
In addition, the feds might not be so eager to release their grip on Hastert given that the case isn't merely a classic money laundering scheme.
The federal indictment says Hastert was hiding $3.5 million in payments he was making in 2010 to an "Individual A" in order to conceal past misconduct.
The details of his alleged actions have not been revealed publicly, although federal sources have told NBC News that Hastert was allegedly paying to cover up sexual misconduct while he was a teacher and coach in Yorkville, Illinois, from 1965 to 1981.
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The sister of a now-deceased Illinois man identified him as an alleged victim of sexual abuse by Hastert when he was a student at Yorkville High School. Any sexual abuse claims wouldn't likely result in criminal charges against Hastert because the statute of limitations have expired, experts say.
Hastert has not responded to repeated requests for comment from NBC News.
"I think the government may see the (bank withdrawal) structuring charge as a way to punish Hastert for the crime that can no longer be prosecuted," said Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University.
Gillers added that Hastert's legal team will have its work cut out for it to provide a compelling reason for why Hastert allegedly made more than 100 withdrawals from his personal bank account of just under $10,000 — an amount that would have triggered reporting to the IRS.
"The government has to prove Hastert's state of mind, not merely the withdrawals," Gillers added. "But given how many there were, the inference will be strong that evasion was his purpose."
But the reason for the alleged evasion could open up the potentially explosive revelations about why he was making the payments to unnamed Individual A in the first place.
And in that case, it also opens up the possibility that the defense would paint Hastert as the victim — with him forking over the alleged "hush money" because he was being extorted, legal analysts said.
"It can win him some sympathy with a jury, but not much if the jury believes the allegation of sexual abuse," Gillers said. "Hastert would have a hard time presenting himself as a victim of extortion deserving sympathy without also admitting the underlying offense that he paid to hush up."
As for lying to the FBI, Gillers added, a taped recording of Hastert's conversations with the feds would appear to benefit the prosecution. (The same charge of lying to federal investigators helped a jury convict home goods maven Martha Stewart in 2004.)
During Hastert's arraignment Tuesday in Chicago, his high-powered attorney, Thomas Green, entered not guilty pleas on his behalf. Hastert softly responded with, "yes, sir," when asked by the judge whether he understood the conditions of his bail.
The two charges against the one-time GOP power player carry a maximum five-year prison sentence each.
But Hastert's defense may have a way out if prosecutors are willing to negotiate a plea deal — should he want one, said Richard Kling, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.
"If the feds can prove what’s in the indictment, they have a good case. Lying to the FBI is typically a slam dunk," Kling said. "Therefore, it's going to be in (Hastert's) best interest to avoid a trial."