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Dennis Hastert Pleads Not Guilty In Federal Court


Former U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has entered a plea of not guilty in a Chicago courtroom. It was the Illinois Republican's first court appearance since being indicted on charges of skirting federal banking regulations when he withdrew large sums of cash. The indictment alleges Hastert had agreed to pay an individual $3.5 million as hush money to conceal misconduct that happened decades ago. It alleges that he then lied about it to the FBI. Joining me from our Chicago bureau is NPR's David Schaper, and, David, it looked like a crazy scene outside the court with a mob of reporters. Tell us what happened inside the court.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Yeah, it certainly was kind of crazy, something we haven't seen here since the - probably the sentencing of our former Governor Rob Blagojevich. The former speaker was his usual hunched self, but he certainly had a very concerned, almost grave look in his eyes as he entered the Dirksen Federal Courts Building, downtown Chicago. In court, he stood before U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Durkin and entered a plea of not guilty to both counts in the indictment against him. He was charged with illegally structuring bank withdrawals to hide the fact that he was taking out huge amounts of cash, and the second count was lying about it to the FBI. He answered questions from the judge in rather hushed tones, saying yes, sir, yes, sir, about five or six different times. He certainly lacked that confident demeanor he displayed as the longest-serving Republican speaker of the house, nor as that of that seasoned politician who would try to broker compromises sometimes within his divided caucus or when reaching across the aisle. He really looked pained to be in the situation he is in.

SIEGEL: Well, neither Dennis Hastert nor his attorney spoke to reporters, but there is a lot of speculation that a plea agreement could be reached here. What are you hearing?

SCHAPER: Well, the allegation in the indictment is that he was paying someone identified only as individual A $3.5 million as hush money to conceal prior misconduct. Federal prosecutors went out of their way in the indictment to include the fact that decades ago, before being in public office, Hastert worked as a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville, a town about 50 miles west of Chicago. Legal experts say that that suggests the prior misconduct is related to that job. Several news organizations report that federal law enforcement sources say Hastert was making the payments to conceal sexual abuse allegations. NPR has tried, but has been unable to independently verify those news reports. A woman whose brother served as the equipment manager of the wrestling team in the late '60s and early '70s told ABC News that her brother told her years ago that he was sexually abused by Hastert. The brother has since died. Legal experts and criminal defense attorneys I've talked to say that with the intense media circus already surrounding the case, Hastert might not want any more allegations coming out. And conceivably, if this case were to go to trial, individual A could be put on the stand and asked to testify as to why the former speaker was allegedly sending him money.

SIEGEL: David, the judge in the case has offered to recuse himself. Explain why that would be.

SCHAPER: Well, it turns out that Judge Thomas Durkin has connections to both sides in this case. First, in the defense, it has come out that he gave - made some campaign contributions to Speaker Hastert. He told the court that he has never met Speaker Hastert, even though his brother is the leader of the Illinois Republican caucus in the Illinois House. But he made those contributions through his law firm at the time. That law firm later hired Ethan Hastert - Dennis Hastert's son - and he worked with him. So he has connections there, but he's also a former federal prosecutor, and he wants to give both sides a chance to disqualify him from the case if they feel uncomfortable. But a lot of the legal experts say this isn't a surprise, and he probably won't be removed from the case.

SIEGEL: Meanwhile, Hastert is out on bail.

SCHAPER: He is out. He posted a $4,500 - what they call an appearance bond - a pretty small amount considering the charges. He does have to surrender his passport and is not allowed to travel outside of the continental United States.

SIEGEL: NPR's David Schaper speaking to us about Dennis Hastert's court appearance in Chicago. David, thank you.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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