CHICAGO — Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert arrived at a Minnesota prison on Wednesday to serve his 15-month sentence in a hush-money case involving revelations that the Illinois Republican sexually abused at least four boys when he coached wrestling at an Illinois high school.
The wheelchair-bound 74-year-old Hastert arrived around noon at the Rochester Federal Medical Center, partly wheeling himself into the complex between high, razor-wire fencing. A woman followed behind him, carrying crutches.
Hastert — one of the highest-ranking U.S. politicians to go to prison — will be known at the prison as Inmate No. 47991-424.
At sentencing in April, U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin cited the abuse that dated back more than 35 years and branded Hastert “a serial child molester” in imposing a sentence that went beyond federal guidelines, which recommended no more than six months behind bars.
Hastert wasn’t charged with child abuse because statutes of limitation ran out; he coached at Yorkville High School from 1965 to 1981. Instead, Hastert was charged with and pleaded guilty to violating banking law in trying to pay $3.5 million in hush money to one victim referred to in court papers only as “Individual A.”
The nation’s longest-serving GOP speaker who for eight years was second in the line of succession to the presidency will be subject to the same protocol other new federal inmates, which typically includes a full-body strip search.
Hastert must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence, or just over a year.
High-level politicians going to prison is nothing new in Illinois: The long list of convicted politicians from the state includes former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is serving a 14-year sentence for multiple corruption convictions, among them trying to sell President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat.
The 64-acre Rochester prison specializes in health care for physically ailing or mentally ill inmates, and is near the Mayo Clinic. Hastert nearly died from a blood infection and suffered a stroke after he pleaded guilty on Oct. 28. He also has diabetes.
The facility, despite its name, has all the features of a prison. It’s surrounded by razor-wire fencing and holds around 800 inmates from all security classifications. Among them is Jared Lee Loughner, who is serving a life term for killing six people in the 2011 shooting that targeted and injured former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords.
During sentencing, Durkin pointed to the prison’s large population of child molesters, saying it should lessen the chances Hastert would be singled out for attacks in a prison culture in which those who hurt children as considered the lowest of the low.
Hastert sat in a wheelchair during his sentencing hearing, using a walker to deliver a statement. That day, Durkin said the prison would have to have the facilities to treat Hastert, noting that, “This is not meant to be a death sentence.”
Hastert’s life will be highly regimented inside the prison, from frequent head counts to shakedown searches. Physically able inmates must work from 7:40 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. The congressman-turned-high-paid lobbyist could end up mopping floors or doing yardwork for as little as 25 cents an hour.
Once released, Hastert must spend two years on supervised release and undergo sex-offender treatment. A likely lie-detector test would seek to determine how many times Hastert sexually abused kids and over what time period.
Prosecutors described Hastert’s payments as something akin to an out-of-court settlement, saying Individual A wanted to bring in lawyers and put the agreement in writing but that Hastert refused.
Court filings detailed the abuse allegations, describing how Hastert would also sit in a recliner in the locker room with a direct view of the showers. The victims were between 14 and 17.
A former wrestler, who also is the brother of a state Republican leader, delivered a statement during Hastert’s sentencing. “I looked up to coach Hastert,” 53-year-old Scott Cross said, adding that after Hastert abused him in the locker room. “I was devastated. I felt very alone,” he said.