Former US House Speaker 'molested boys'

Hastert has been accused by federal prosecutors of sexually abusing five former high school students in Illinois from the 1960s to the early 1980s.
Hastert has been accused by federal prosecutors of sexually abusing five former high school students in Illinois from the 1960s to the early 1980s.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, once among America's most esteemed political figures, faced more public disgrace after prosecutors revealed details of alleged sex abuse while he was a high school teacher and wrestling coach.

Hastert allegedly molested boys as young as 14 and agreed to make secret payments totalling US$3.5 million (S$4.7 million) to one victim. It is a precipitous fall from grace for a man once second in line to the presidency.

On Saturday, Hastert's lawyer said his client acknowledged he had committed past "transgressions", but declined to describe those acts. The statement came a day after federal prosecutors detailed for the first time allegations by five former high school students of abuse that took place when Hastert taught and coached wrestling at Yorkville High School in Illinois from the 1960s to the early 1980s, before his congressional career.

The statutes of limitations have long passed on the alleged abuse, so Hastert is being charged only with breaking financial laws.

The 74-year-old Republican lobbyist pleaded guilty in October to illegally structuring bank withdrawals over four and a half years that prosecutors identified as hush money. He told government agents he was being extorted by someone falsely accusing him of abuse, but recorded conversations between him and the person - identified as "Individual A" - cast doubt over his claim.

In the end, Hastert was able to actually pay Individual A a total of US$1.7 million - about half the agreed amount - between 2010 and 2014 in regular payments that stopped only when the government started investigating him.

At a sentencing hearing scheduled for April 27, prosecutors are expected to seek a six-month sentence for the Illinois lawmaker, taking note of his ill health as Hastert suffered a stroke after pleading guilty. His lawyers asked for probation.

"Mr Hastert acknowledges that as a young man he committed transgressions for which he is profoundly sorry," defence attorney Thomas Green said in a statement. "He earnestly apologises to his former students, family, friends, previous constituents and all others affected by the harm his actions have caused."

Hastert was Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1999 to 2007. At the time, he was seen as a stolid, affable politician who helped the US legislature transition from the rancorous tenure of his predecessor, Mr Newt Gingrich.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2016, with the headline 'Former US House Speaker 'molested boys''. Print Edition | Subscribe