WASHINGTON — Dennis Hastert’s former House colleagues say the emergence of sexual abuse allegations against him has been jarring, at odds with a reason they anointed him speaker in the late 1990s – his squeaky-clean reputation.
Former Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a top GOP vote-counter when Hastert rose from obscurity during a chaotic December 1998, said Friday that Republicans turned to him partly because “there wasn’t any inkling of anything” hidden in his past.
“We’ve got to do something quick,” Kingston recalled top Republicans saying as they frantically sought a new leader after an election setback and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton following his affair with Monica Lewinsky. “We can’t have division. We have to have somebody who can stand the scrutiny and move on.”
Another Hastert contemporary, former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., agreed there were no hints of problems for the Illinois Republican. He said during the frenzy of Clinton’s impeachment and the GOP scramble to replace Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., they did no research to make sure Hastert wasn’t hiding anything.
In a situation like that, “there’s no time for internal vetting,” said Davis, who was part of the GOP leadership. “In the way he conducted his office, he never got close to the line ethically on anything.”
Seventeen years later, a federal indictment says Hastert agreed in 2010 to pay $3.5 million to an individual from Yorkville, Illinois, for silence about “prior misconduct.” The indictment notes that the former speaker taught high school and coached wrestling there from 1965 to 1981 – well before he began his two-decade House career in 1987.
In the indictment, Hastert is accused of one count of evading bank regulations by withdrawing hundreds of thousands of dollars in smaller amounts and one count of lying to the FBI about the reason for the withdrawals.
Jolene Burdge of Billings, Montana, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the FBI interviewed her last month about her assertion that Hastert sexually abused her brother while he was at Yorkville High School, from which he graduated in 1971.
Burdge said her brother told her before he died in 1995 that his first homosexual contact was with Hastert and that their relationship lasted through high school.
In an interview aired Friday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Burdge said Hastert was a father figure to her brother, Stephen Reinboldt. But she added, “He damaged Steve, I think, more than any of us will ever know.”
A person familiar with the indictment, announced May 28, has told the AP that the payments it mentioned were to conceal claims that Hastert sexually molested someone decades ago. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Hastert, who has not been charged with sexual abuse, did not respond to a message left on his cellphone Friday. Emails and phone messages to his son, Ethan Hastert, were also unanswered.
Burdge considered telling her brother’s story in 2006, as a scandal involving then-Rep. Mark Foley unfolded. Foley, R-Fla., sent inappropriate emails and sexually explicit instant messages to former House pages while Hastert was speaker and eventually resigned from the House.
At the time, Burdge spoke briefly to the AP and other news organizations but decided against speaking publicly.
Hastert became speaker in 1999. He served eight years in the post, stepping down after his party lost House control in 2006 elections driven largely by voter antipathy to the U.S. war in Iraq.
But in the waning days of December 1998, Republicans were desperately seeking a new speaker who would have nothing to hide.
The House had just impeached Clinton after his sexual relationship with Lewinsky, a White House intern. House Republicans, who had lost seats in that year’s election but retained a narrow majority, dumped Gingrich as speaker.
They thought they had Gingrich’s replacement in Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., until he stepped aside after abruptly admitting to his own extramarital affairs.
“People said, `We need somebody who’s a clean guy,'” Kingston recalled Friday. “And Denny was a House guy. He knew the mechanics of the House, he knew the players, he knew the mentality of it, he got along with the Democrats. There were a lot of reasons to turn to Denny Hastert. So he was a safe bet.”
“I would have heard” rumors about Hastert had there been any, said former top House Democratic aide Steve Elmendorf. “I never heard them.”
Hastert had been top lieutenant to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, whose aggressive partisan tactics made him too divisive to become speaker.
In contrast, Hastert had an easy-going approach. He was so low-profile that he told colleagues that until his ascension to the speaker’s job, he had no locks on all the doors in his Illinois home, Kingston said.
Burdge said her brother told her in 1979 about his past with Hastert. She said she kept quiet about his story because he feared “nobody would believe him,” but she said she now hopes any other victims will come forward.