Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert intends to plead guilty in a multimillion-dollar hush-money case linked to allegations of sexual misconduct from decades ago, a defense attorney told a federal judge Thursday.
A written plea agreement should be completed by Monday, attorney John Gallo said during a brief status hearing. At the attorney's request, a federal judge set Oct. 28 as the date for the 73-year-old Illinois Republican to change his plea.
Defendants typically agree to plead guilty in hopes of a more lenient sentence. A plea deal for the high school coach-turned-politician would also avert a trial and help keep any potentially embarrassing Hastert secrets quiet.
Neither Gallo nor prosecutors offered details about what a deal might say, including which counts Hastert would plead guilty to or whether the man who was once second in the line of succession for the presidency would go to prison.
He faces one count of breaking banking laws and one count of lying to the FBI about agreeing to pay $3.5 million to someone referred to in the indictment only as "Individual A" to hide claims of unspecified past misconduct. Each count carries a maximum five-year prison term.
A plea deal would mean that Individual A, who has never been identified, would not have to testify about receiving any of the money. The Associated Press and other media, citing anonymous sources, have reported the payments were meant to conceal claims of sexual misconduct.
When Hastert was charged in May, the indictment noted he had taught and coached high school wrestling from 1965 to 1981 in Yorkville, a suburb west of Chicago. That strongly suggests the charges are linked to that history.
Helene McNeive, whose husband taught at Yorkville High School with Hastert and now lives in Arizona, said Thursday's word about the plea left her feeling "very sad" for the whole Hastert family.
"From the beginning, this was not the Denny we knew," she said. "He was a great father, a great husband and a great friend, and nobody in their wildest dreams could ever think this could have happened."
After being questioned by banking officials about more than a dozen withdrawals of $50,000 in cash, Hastert allegedly began structuring the withdrawals in increments of just under $10,000 to avoid reporting rules. He's also accused of lying to the FBI about the reason for the withdrawals, telling them he simply didn't trust banks. Investigators have said Hastert withdrew about $1.7 million from 2010 to 2014.
Hastert could still change his mind. Gallo told US District Judge Thomas M. Durkin that the defense "reserved the right" to go to trial if talks collapse in the final days.
A main aim of Hastert's lawyers has likely been to ensure details about his alleged misconduct are not included in the plea deal, in sentencing memos or in any other court document, said Jeff Cramer, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago.
The question of how to address motive is probably another sticking point, he added. Plea deals typically touch on motive, though in Hastert's case that could force him to acknowledge the conduct behind the charges.
Plea deals often require a defendant to plead guilty to one count in exchange for the rest being dropped. Some deals fix a specific sentence, while others suggest a range of punishments, leaving the final call to a judge.
McNeive expressed concern for Hastert and his wife, Jean, and said she hoped details of his actions never come to light.
"To me, the best thing would be if it all goes away," she said. "I am sure they are all embarrassed and sad and mad."
Sentencing is usually set for a date after the guilty plea, though defendants are sometimes sentenced the same day. The latter could be an option Hastert prefers, allowing him to get the process over with fast.
In most criminal cases, sentencing hearings are also the chance for victims to step forward and talk about the effect of a crime on their lives. It's not at all clear that there would be any input from Individual A.
Hastert's lead attorney, Thomas C. Green, has argued that the allegations in the media of past sexual misconduct — which he blamed on government leaks — could deprive Hastert of a fair trial. In July, Green complained that the indictment had "effectively been amended" by leaks and referred to the sexual allegations as "an 800-pound gorilla in this case."
It's unclear if claims not in the indictment would have had any relevance at a trial, where the focus would probably be on whether he technically broke the law. But they could have felt pressure to offer at least some details about any past misconduct in explaining why Hastert acted as he did.