Ex-Congressman Hastert Pleads Not Guilty

     CHICAGO (CN) – Citing the appearence of a conflict of interest, a federal judge presiding over the corruption trial of former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert recused himself Tuesday as the Republican entered a plea of not guilty.
     The charges against Hastert, 73, involve a purported $3.5 million hush-money deal that the longest-serving Republican House speaker allegedly struck to conceal his prior misconduct with a person identified only as “Individual A.”
     While the seven-page indictment sheds little light on Individual A, The New York Times has reported that a man told the FBI that Hastert paid him off after “inappropriately” touching him decades ago, when Hastert was a high school wrestling coach.
     Hastert was a high school teacher and coach in Yorkville from 1965 to 1981, and the indictment describes “Individual A as “a resident of Yorkville, Ill.,” who has known Hastert for most of his or her life.
     Prosecutors say the payoffs began in 2010, when A and Hastert “discussed past misconduct by defendant against Individual A that had occurred years earlier.”
     Hastert has worked as a lobbyist since retiring from Congress in 2009 – the year before the alleged payoffs began. He began his first term in 1986 and became speaker in 1999 after Newt Gingrich stepped down, facing ethics problems.
     The former speaker is charged with structuring $952,000 in cash withdrawals to evade currency-transaction reports, and lying to the FBI about it.
     At an arraignment Monday, Hastert pleaded not guilty to the two counts, which each carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
     Defense attorneys acknowledged that their client has not read the indictment and waived the opportunity to read it at this time.
     A large audience gathered for the hearing, which was predictable except for U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin’s announcement that he would step aside.
     “This case was indicted and randomly assigned to me,” Durkin said. “I believe what I’m going to disclose is already a matter of public record. As far as I recall, I have never met the defendant. More than 10 years ago, I made two contributions to defendant’s congressional campaigns. These were made when I was employed at Mayer Brown and a private citizen. I also actively worked with the defendant’s son Ethan Hastert on a case. I do not consider him a personal friend. I have not seen Ethan Hastert in the two and a half years since I left the firm.”
     Durkin also mentioned that his brother, a fellow Republican named Jim Durkin, is the Illinois House minority leader.
     “The defendant is not a personal friend of my brother,” the judge insisted.
     Durkin also once worked with defense attorney John Gallo in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
     “I do not know Mr. Gallo although I was once his overall supervisor,” Durkin said. “I have no doubts that I can be impartial in this matter. I’m not so naive to believe that a reasonable person would not question my impartiality taking all of these circumstances together. So I do disqualify myself from hearing the case.”
     The audience was clearly surprised by this revelation, but Durkin went on.
     “However, that’s not the end of the analysis,” the judge said. “This type and only this type of disqualification is waivable provided it is preceded by a disclosure of the basis of the disqualification. The statute leaves this decision to the parties. I’m going to give the parties until 4 p.m. on June 11 to decide whether or not to waive the issue. The parties will separately communicate their decisions to the clerk. I specifically do not want either side to address the issue of waiver at this time in front of me.”
     Hastert is to be released on bail, so much of the hearing dealt with typical conditions of release. He acknowledged having reviewed them and did not object.
     Defense attorney Thomas Green took issue only with the condition to “remove all firearms from defendant’s property within 48 hours.”
     “Mr. Hastert has two sons, each has a safe on his property in which firearms are stored,” Green said, “Mr. Hastert has no access to either.”
     Green said his team needs two weeks to comply with that condition, and prosecutors Steven Block and Cary Hamilton did not object.
     The rest of the proceeding dealt with standard procedural issues, such as reading Hastert the conditions of bond, admonishing him of the need to appear and ordering him not to violate federal law while on release.
     Hastert gained prominence long before he became speaker, as a leading apologist for Lt. Col. Oliver North and the Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra hearings.
     Since leaving office Hastert also worked in the Public Policy and Political Law Practice at the Dickstein Shapiro law firm in Washington, D.C., from which he has resigned, according to The New York Times. The firm also removed his biography from its website.
     Hastert also resigned from the board of the CME Group, of Chicago, which runs one of the world’s largest futures and derivatives exchanges.

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