JUDY WOODRUFF: The former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Dennis Hastert today pleaded not guilty to charges that he paid out millions of dollars in hush money and lied about it to the FBI.
This was Hastert’s first public appearance since news of his indictment nearly two weeks ago.
William Brangham takes it from there.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We get more on today’s court appearance from Jon Seidel. He covers federal courts for The Chicago Sun-Times and was at the hearing this afternoon.
Jon Seidel, I wonder if you would just tell me, legally speaking, what happened in the courtroom today?
JON SEIDEL, The Chicago Sun-Times: Today’s hearing was pretty straightforward.
Today was a day for Dennis Hastert to walk into Judge Durkin’s courtroom and enter a plea. He pleaded not guilty. He acknowledged that he had received the indictment against him and waived the reading.
We also had his attorneys, Thomas Green, file an appearance on his behalf. And we also had the judge acknowledge some of the conflicts that had been previously reported when it comes to contributions that the judge made while he was a private citizen to Mr. Hastert’s campaign, as well as his work for the same law firm that Mr. Hastert’s son works for.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We will get to that, the issue of the judge’s conflict, in a moment, but just for people who have not been following this case closely, can you just lay out, what has Dennis Hastert been accused of doing?
JON SEIDEL: Mr. Hastert faces a very obscure charge of structuring bank withdrawals, as well as lying to the FBI.
They said that he agreed to pay $3.5 million of hush money to a man, a longtime acquaintance from Yorkville, to cover up for past misconduct against that acquaintance. As he began making those withdrawals, he initially was taking out $50,000 from his bank account. When the banks began to question him about those withdrawals, he began making withdrawals of less than $10,000.
The feds say he did so to avoid reporting requirements on transactions of $10,000 or more. That is what he’s actually charged with. And in December of last year, when federal agents asked him about those withdrawals and asked him if he did so because he didn’t trust the banks, he allegedly said, yes, that’s what I was doing. I was keeping the cash.
So, this all revolves around this alleged prior misconduct with somebody from Yorkville that he apparently agreed to pay $3.5 million to, but the actual charge is structuring $952,000 worth of withdrawals out of his banks.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You reported today that Mr. Hastert might be under some kind of pressure to agree to a plea deal of sorts. Can you explain that a little bit more?
JON SEIDEL: Well, it’s really more speculation by local attorneys who are trying to figure out how this case is going to play out. The indictment is very scant when it comes to the details.
There is some thought that prosecutors could have been much more explicit when you look at some of the leaks about what some of this misconduct could be related to. It could be that Mr. Hastert wants to avoid a trial because the thought is that, if he goes to trial, we can expect to see a lot of these details finally come out in a courtroom.
That could put pressure on Mr. Hastert to agree to some kind of plea deal. In fact, we have had one local prominent attorney here speculate that Mr. Hastert cut a deal. But he — to the best of my knowledge, he has absolutely no insight into that. That’s pure speculation among the criminal bar here.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You mentioned earlier that this judge has a rather unique relationship with Mr. Hastert. Have people argued that, the fact this judge made donations to Hastert’s campaign and worked at one point with Dennis Hastert’s son, that he should be removed from this case?
JON SEIDEL: Well, nobody has legally argued that. Today was the first opportunity for that to happen, but the judge himself was the first person to bring it up.
Judge Durkin made two donations while he was in private practice, before he became a judge, to Mr. Hastert’s campaign. The donations totaled I believe about $1,500. He’s also worked for the same law firm where Mr. Hastert’s son is now a partner.
Additionally, Judge Durkin’s brother Jim Durkin is the current Republican leader of the Illinois House of Representatives. The judge brought all of this to everybody’s attention in court today, not that any of it needed to be. I don’t think he said anything that hasn’t been previously reported since the case was assigned to him.
But he’s giving each side an opportunity to basically say whether or not they think the case should remain with him. He acknowledged that he could be disqualified from this case. He’s giving both sides an opportunity to waive that disqualification. And we should know by the end of this week whether either side will want to do so.
The judge said that he set up a process so that he will not know which party or if either party declined to waive the conflict.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Jon Seidel, Chicago Sun-Times, thanks so much for coming in.
JON SEIDEL: Thank you.