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Dennis Hastert Investigation 'Undoubtedly Began' With The Banks


A story in Politico called the indictment of Dennis Hastert extraordinarily thin gruel, ripe for abuse, and, poorly considered melodrama. Well, Jeffrey Toobin probably disagrees. He's a former prosecutor who writes for The New Yorker. Most recently, he's written "The Legal Logic Of The Case Against Hastert" and he joins us now.

Welcome to the program, once again.


SIEGEL: There are serious crimes intimated by this case - sexual abuse, perhaps extortion. But the case is only about structured withdrawals from the bank and lying to the FBI about payments. Is that really enough to bring a federal prosecution?

TOOBIN: Absolutely, and it's been a fairly routine prosecution in federal courts for quite some time because Congress made a judgment that it's legal to carry around and deposit and withdrawal as much cash as you want, but it's suspicious. So they put in this requirement that banks must file currency transaction reports. They must ask anyone who is depositing or withdrawing a great deal of cash and ask them their name and some identifying information, and that, it turns out, is a very good way of flushing-out criminal activity. And that's the kind of case this is.

SIEGEL: But typically that means that the money is being spent illegally, it's being used to buy drugs or perhaps to underwrite some act of terrorism. In this case, as you write in The New Yorker, if Dennis Hastert had just written a check of $3.5 million to individual A, there'd be nothing illegal about it at all.

TOOBIN: That's absolutely true, and it is true that most currency transaction reports, most structuring cases, are ultimately based on narcotics proceeds in one way or another. And obviously that's not an issue here, but it is still against the law. And prosecutors had to make a judgment - is it the kind of crime we want to simply overlook when there is this very suspicious and unlawful pattern of prosecution - pattern of transactions? And on top of that, he lied to the FBI about it. If he had simply said, well, I didn't know, or this is what I was doing - he made up this ridiculous story, it appears, that he didn't trust the banks, that's why he was withdrawing money. I don't see why that is anything other than a perfectly appropriate use of prosecutorial discretion.

SIEGEL: If you were a prosecutor, you would bring the case on that basis.

TOOBIN: In a second.

SIEGEL: What do you make of the argument that what's happened here is, prosecutors were interested in an offense that isn't even mentioned? It's barely alluded to in the indictment, something that Hastert did, his behavior many years ago. And because the statute of limitations has run out on that, they're going after him for the way that he withdrew money from the bank.

TOOBIN: Well, I don't doubt that the fact that this deals with prior misconduct and perhaps very, very distasteful, unlawful if outside the statute of the limitations conduct flavors the case. But the way these cases arise is they come from the banks. They don't come from suspicions about any other underlying crime. The banks report this sort of suspicious transaction, so this investigation undoubtedly began with the currency withdrawals, not some investigation of an ancient crime that somehow turned up - like Al Capone's tax offense - an excuse to prosecute someone. This started with the currency transaction reports and the question was, did they later - and then why did they go forward?

SIEGEL: Jeffrey Toobin, thanks.

Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker, talking about the Hastert case. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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