CHICAGO — Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert intends to plead guilty in a hush-money case linked to allegations of sexual misconduct, a defense attorney said Thursday, a move that could ensure that any secrets from his days as a high school wrestling coach are never revealed in public.
A written plea agreement should be completed by Monday, attorney John Gallo told a federal judge during a brief status hearing. At the attorney’s request, the judge set Oct. 28 as the date for the 73-year-old Illinois Republican to change his plea.
Defendants typically agree to plead guilty in hopes of a more lenient sentence. A plea deal would also avert a trial that could divulge more about the alleged misconduct behind the criminal charges.
Neither Gallo nor prosecutors offered details about any possible deal, including which counts Hastert would plead guilty to or whether the man who was once second in the line of succession for the presidency would go to prison. Hastert did not attend Thursday’s hearing.
He faces one count of breaking banking laws and one count of lying to the FBI about agreeing to pay $3.5 million to someone referred to in the indictment only as “Individual A.” The money was supposedly to hide claims of unspecified past misconduct.
A plea deal would mean that Individual A, who has never been identified, would not have to testify about receiving any of the money. The Associated Press and other media, citing anonymous sources, have reported that the payments were meant to conceal claims of sexual misconduct.
In all, Hastert withdrew $1.7 million from 2010 to 2014, according to the indictment. Each count carries a maximum five-year prison term.
When Hastert was charged in May, the indictment noted he had taught and coached high school wrestling from 1965 to 1981 in close-knit Yorkville, a suburb west of Chicago. That strongly suggests the charges are linked to that history.
Those acquainted with Hastert from his days in Yorkville have tended to express sympathy for him.
Helene McNeive, whose husband taught at Yorkville High School with Hastert and now lives in Arizona, said Thursday’s word about the plea left her feeling “very sad” for the whole Hastert family.
“From the beginning, this was not the Denny we knew,” she said. “He was a great father, a great husband and a great friend, and nobody in their wildest dreams could ever think this could have happened.”
Related allegations emerged after Hastert’s indictment. A Montana woman, Jolene Burdge, told the AP that the FBI interviewed her in May about allegations her brother had a sexual relationship with Hastert.
Her brother told her before he died in 1995 that his first homosexual contact was with Hastert and that the abuse lasted throughout high school. In an interview aired on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Burdge identified her brother as Stephen Reinboldt.
Hastert was questioned by banking officials in 2012 about 15 withdrawals of $50,000 in cash over two years. After that, he allegedly began structuring withdrawals in increments just under $10,000 to avoid reporting rules.
Asked by FBI agents in December 2014 if he was withdrawing so much cash because he didn’t think it was safe in banks, the indictment said Hastert responded, “Yeah, I kept the cash. That’s what I’m doing.”
Hastert, who led the House for nine years, could still change his mind about pleading guilty. Gallo told Judge Thomas M. Durkin that the defense “reserved the right” to go to trial if talks collapse in the final days.
A likely main aim of Hastert’s lawyers is to ensure that details about any misconduct are not included in the plea deal, in sentencing memos or in any other court document, said Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago.
The question of how to address motive is probably another sticking point, he added. Plea deals typically touch on motive, though in Hastert’s case that could force him to acknowledge the underlying actions he was trying to keep secret.
Plea deals often require a defendant to plead guilty to one count in exchange for the rest being dropped. Some deals fix a specific sentence, while others suggest a range of punishments, leaving the final call to a judge.
McNeive expressed concern for Hastert and his wife, Jean, and said she hoped details of his actions never come to light.
“To me, the best thing would be if it all goes away,” she said. “I am sure they are all embarrassed and sad and mad.”
Sentencing is usually set for a date after a guilty plea, though defendants are sometimes sentenced the same day. The latter could be an option Hastert prefers, allowing him to get the process over with fast.
Hastert’s lead attorney, Thomas C. Green, has argued that allegations in the media of past sexual misconduct — which he blamed on government leaks — could deprive Hastert of a fair trial. In July, Green complained that the indictment had “effectively been amended” by leaks and referred to the sexual allegations as “an 800-pound gorilla in this case.”
MICHAEL TARM, Associated Press
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington, D.C., and Don Babwin in Chicago also contributed to this report.