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Chicago, Illinois USA
Wednesday 22 June 2016
Former U.S. House Speaker
Dennis Hastert reports to prison
by Christy Gutowski
Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert reported to a Minnesota federal prison as scheduled Wednesday, one year after an explosive indictment into secret hush-money payments sparked the rapid fall of a local coaching legend who became one of the country's most powerful politicians.
Hastert passed through razor-wire fences just before noon at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester. He was seated in a wheelchair with his wife, Jean, a few steps behind.
He must serve about 85 percent of a 15-month sentence before his anticipated release next summer followed by two years' supervised release and sex-offender treatment.
His surrender was Hastert's first public sighting since April, when a federal judge rejected the former GOP powerhouse's plea for probation. U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin called Hastert, 74, a "serial child molester" and forced him to admit he abused male students before he entered politics when he was a Yorkville High School coach.
Hastert did not face sex-related charges because prosecutors said the statute of limitations had long expired. He instead admitted to committing a financial crime -- withdrawing more than U$950,000 from banks in a way that would avoid detection, in an effort to keep a victim quiet.
"What I did was wrong, and I regret it,' Hastert said at sentencing. Of his former student athletes, he said: "They looked to me, and I took advantage of them."
The multibuilding Rochester facility sits on a sprawling campus and was once home to former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, televangelist Jim Bakker and Bob Probert, the former Chicago Blackhawks [ice hockey] enforcer who served three months on a cocaine charge.
How the feds uncovered Dennis Hastert's sordid past
It is one of only five such prison hospitals that serve male inmates at all security levels. Besides Hastert, the most recognizable inmate currently housed there is Jared Loughner, the perpetrator of the 2011 Tucson, Arizona, shooting that killed six people and injured then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Although it is a federal prison, the tranquil location has more of a hospital-like setting. Security is focused around the perimeter and inmates may move around -- outside of designated count times -- with relative freedom. Staff is not armed within the buildings.
But, prison experts said, make no mistake: Hastert will be subject to traditional prison rules and regulations that include a strip search upon entry, random shakedown searches, urine testing for drugs and he will have to submit a DNA sample. He won't be kept in a locked cell and rarely would be handcuffed or shackled, but Hastert will have to follow regulations that dictate when he eats, sleeps and showers.
Hastert reports to prison
"There are no (federal prison) country clubs anymore. That myth has been dispelled," said John Webster, a former attorney who served a stint in federal prison and later started the Nashville, Tenn.-based National Prison and Sentencing Consultants in 2002. "In this kind of an environment, he's not going to be anyone's 'favorite son' anymore, but as long as he is not a jerk to staff and other inmates, he won't have a problem."
The prison is affiliated with the nearby Mayo Clinic, with doctors and nurses on site providing high-level medical services to the approximately 700 male inmates assigned there who need long-term physical and mental health care. More than 23 percent of Rochester's inmates committed a sex-related offense so Hastert would not necessarily be singled out, federal authorities said.
He is allowed to wear his wedding band, but prison-issued garb will replace all other personal attire. In the coming days, staff will acquaint him with the prison and its rules and assess his medical and psychological needs and work suitability through a detailed social screening.
He may speak on the phone for up to 300 minutes per month and share an embrace with loved ones on designated visiting days each week. But inmates such as Hastert are barred from using cellphones or the internet. He'll have access to a shared television room, newspapers, a law library, and indoor and outdoor fitness and recreation.
In October, Hastert admitted in a plea deal with federal prosecutors that he withdrew the money to pay U$3,500,000 to a longtime acquaintance -- identified in court records only as Individual A -- to hide wrongdoing.
The case began to unfold four years ago after a Yorkville (Illinois) bank noticed the suspicious withdrawals. In December 2014, FBI agents confronted Hastert in his Plano home. He told them he was trying to keep his money safe, but his attorney later alleged Hastert was a victim of a $3.5 million extortion plot.
Hastert claimed that Individual A, a former Yorkville standout wrestler, had falsely accused him of sexual abuse decades ago when he was a coach. At the request of authorities, Hastert secretly recorded two calls to Individual A to catch him making threats, but agents soon realized it was Hastert who was lying.
Agents then questioned Individual A, who told them Hastert inappropriately touched him when he was a child in a motel room on a wrestling trip. At least four other students involved in Hastert's wrestling program, including an equipment manager who is deceased, alleged at some point their coach sexually abused them in the 1960s and 1970s.
Hastert was indicted 28 May 2015. But authorities refused to acknowledge the motive behind the hush-money payments. Tribune reporters spent several months contacting scores of former wrestlers and students, filing two dozen open-records requests in an effort to undercover the truth.
The Tribune's investigation eventually uncovered child sexual abuse allegations involving at least four of the victims. One of them was Scott Cross, a brother of former Illinois House GOP leader Tom Cross. Scott Cross told the Tribune he was victimized in the fall of 1979 when he was wrestling captain.
Cross asked the Tribune to keep his identity confidential until he spoke out publicly. The Tribune honored his wishes until he appeared at Hastert's sentencing hearing and confronted his former coach while delivering an emotional statement.
Tribune reporters also uncovered the identity of Individual A last winter. He has repeatedly declined comment, but his wife acknowledged her husband is a victim. He has since filed a Kendall County breach-of-contract lawsuit seeking the remaining $1.8 million -- plus accrued interest -- he argues Hastert still owes him. The civil case is due back in court next month.
Finally, 300 days after the bombshell indictment and days before the Tribune published its investigation, the words "sexual abuse" were uttered on the record in an empty courtroom during an unannounced hearing, according to a transcript of the proceeding the Tribune later obtained.
At Hastert's sentencing, Jolene Burdge said one of her brothers, Stephen Reinboldt, confided to her long before his 1995 death at age 42 of AIDS that Hastert had sexual contact with him in high school. Reinboldt, who graduated in 1971, was an equipment manager for the school's wresting and football teams.
Burdge confronted Hastert outside her brother's visitation, but it would be another two decades before she found justice.
"You don't realize how heavy of a burden it is until you no longer have to carry it," Burdge told the Tribune Wednesday. "I was thinking what Steve would say and I think it'd be, 'Thank you for never giving up on me and making people see I was telling the truth.'"
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