CHICAGO (CN) — Admitting to decades-old sexual abuse allegations for the first time, former U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert received a sentence Wednesday of 15 months in federal prison.
Standing before a packed courtroom, 74-year-old Hastert told U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin that he was "deeply ashamed" and "struggling to come to terms with events that occurred."
"The thing I want to do today is to say I'm sorry," said Hastert, who pleaded guilty six months ago to structuring secret payoffs that kept the allegations against him quiet for years.
"They looked to me and I took advantage of them," Hastert said of the boys he victimized on a Yorkville High School wrestling team he coached from 1965 to 1981.
Hastert went to Congress five years later and ultimately became the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House. He took the seat after ethics problems brought the resignation of Newt Gingrich in 1999.
Though Judge Durkin nearly tripled the six-month sentence recommended by prosecutors, the count to which Hastert pleaded carried a maximum penalty of five years. Hastert, who arrived at his sentencing today in a wheelchair, had sought a sentence of probation, citing health problems after suffering a stroke several months ago.
Hastert had pleaded guilty only to financial crime — illegally structuring cash transfers that let him evade filing currency-transaction reports.
Durkin called Hastert a "serial child molester" and said "some conduct is unforgivable no matter how old it is."
One of the former students Hastert victimized addressed the court this morning. Choking back tears, Scott Cross, 53, said Hastert molested him during his senior year on the wrestling team in the guise of giving him a massage — a scene similar to those described by other victims.
"He was a key figure in my life," Cross said, adding that Hastert was "revered" in the small town.
"I respected and trusted Coach Hastert," said Cross, who noted that, "as a 17-year-old boy, I was devastated" by the abuse.
"I felt alone and tremendously embarrassed," Cross continued.
The court heard the story of another of Hastert's victims from that student's sister.
Steven Reinboldt died of AIDS complications at 42 but in high school was "a kid looking for refuge," Jolene Burdge said, speaking directly to Hastert.
Burdge said Reinboldt spent his life after graduating high school "running from the pain" Hastert had caused, feeling "betrayed, ashamed and embarrassed."
"You took his life, Mr. Hastert," Budrge said. "You were supposed to keep him safe, not violate him."
The FBI began looking into large cash withdrawals Hastert had been making from his bank accounts starting in 2010. After a bank warned him it had to report the $50,000 withdrawals he was making, Hastert started taking out less than $10,000 at a time.
When the FBI questioned him, Hastert said he was using the money to buy antique cars and to keep safe in other places, but it turned out he was using it as hush money for yet another abuse victim, referred to as Individual A.
Through 2015 Hastert paid this individual a total of $1.7 million of the $3.5 million he had promised in return for keeping his secret.
The person assumed to be Individual A brought an anonymous civil lawsuit against Hastert on Monday for the remaining $1.8 million of their "settlement." An Illinois man identifying himself only as James Doe, the plaintiff says he was 14 when Hastert molested him at a wrestling camp in Colorado.
At the sentencing today, Durkin brought up the boy's allegation that Hastert sexually abused the boy during a massage in the hotel room they were sharing.
One of Hastert's attorneys, Thomas Green, said that the defense fully acknowledged what their client had done but that Hastert "was able to reshape his life into a career of public service."
Green said Hastert was merely trying to protect his legacy by paying Individual A to keep quiet, and his "survival instinct" kicked in. He added that all of Hastert's good deeds have been erased from the public mind and he is now isolated with his reputation destroyed. "What has happened to him is indeed punishment," the attorney said.
The remarks failed to win sympathy from Durkin.
"Some actions can obliterate a lifetime of good works," the judge said. "I hope I never have to see a case like this again."
Green said noted that Hastert, who had trouble speaking in court today, needs constant medical attention in the wake of his stroke.
In addition to 15 months in jail, Durkin ordered Hastert to pay a $250,000 fine and face two years of supervised release, during which he must attend a treatment program for sex offenders.
Hastert retired from Congress and became a lobbyist in 2009, the year before he started making illegal payoffs.
The new six-page lawsuit against Hastert says his victim demanded compensation after learning in 2008 "for the first time that Hastert had abused someone else, too."
Doe complains in the suit that Hastert "falsely claimed he was being extorted" when federal law enforcement caught wind of the payments.
"To the contrary, as determined during a lengthy secret investigation of both defendant's and plaintiff's activity law enforcement determined that the money was used to pay part of an agreed-upon total of $3.5 million to compensate plaintiff for the sexual abuse committed by defendant when plaintiff was 14 years old," the complaint states.
Doe is represented by Kristi Browne with the Patterson Law Firm in Chicago.
After the sentencing, the government noted that it went after Hastert to hold him "accountable for the crimes he committed that could still be prosecuted."
"All of us have been inspired by the strength and bravery of the victims and witnesses who came forward in the most challenging of circumstances," the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement. "As in all cases, the office is dedicated to doing everything we can to help victims and their families seek justice."
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.