By Fiona Ortiz and Justin Madden
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, once one of the country’s most powerful politicians, was sentenced on Wednesday to 15 months in federal prison for a financial crime related to sexual abuse of high school wrestlers he coached decades ago.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Durkin called Hastert a serial sex abuser in handing down the sentence, which was longer than the zero to six months recommended by federal prosecutors. Durkin said the sentence would have been even longer if it weren’t for Hastert’s age, 74, and poor health.
Frail and clinging to a walker, Hastert apologized for sexually abusing boys when he was a teacher and coach in his hometown of Yorkville.
“I’m sorry to those I hurt and misled. I wanted to apologize for the boys I mistreated,” Hastert told Durkin at the two-hour sentencing hearing in federal court in Chicago.
The judge asked him if he acknowledged sexual abuse of his victims and Hastert said he did.
Hastert, the longest-serving Republican House speaker in history and a successful international lobbyist who was earning $75,000 a month, pleaded guilty last October to the crime of structuring. That involves withdrawing a large sum of money in small increments to avoid detection.
He needed the cash after he reached a secret agreement with one of his five sexual abuse victims to pay him $3.5 million in compensation for pain and suffering.
The judge said that even though Hastert could not be charged with sex abuse because the statute of limitations had run out, he could take the conduct into consideration at sentencing.
“Some conduct is unforgivable no matter how old it is. The abuse was 40 years ago but the damage lasts today,” Durkin said.
Hastert’s defense had asked for a probation-only sentence, arguing that his shame and humiliation were punishment enough. His portrait has been removed from the Capitol, the seat of the U.S. Congress, and his alma mater Wheaton College stripped his name from a public policy center.
“Nothing is more stunning than having the words ‘serial child molester’ and 'speaker of the house’ in the same sentence,” Durkin acknowledged. But he said that an extremely aggravating factor in the sentencing was that Hastert lied to federal agents about the money and falsely claimed that the victim was extorting him. He said Hastert must serve two years of probation and go through sex-offender treatment after release, and also pay a $250,000 fine.
Scott Cross, 53, one of Hastert’s victims, and Jolene Burdge, the sister of another victim who is deceased, both spoke during the hearing.
“Don’t be a coward, Mr. Hastert,” Burdge said. “Tell the truth. What you did wasn’t misconduct. It was sexual abuse of a minor.”
Cross, the first victim to ever speak publicly about the abuse, choked up as he described how Hastert molested him in the wrestling locker room in 1972.
“As a 17-year-old boy I was devastated,” he told the judge. “I tried to figure out why Coach Hastert had singled me out. I felt very alone and tremendously embarrassed.”
Hastert, a conservative who trumpeted his honesty and small-town values when he was in Washington, D.C., said he did not contest Cross’s statement.
But his defense said the former politician had forgotten the incident from 1972 and had even approached Cross’s older brother, Tom Cross, former Illinois House Republican leader, and asked him to write a letter of support to the judge.
The sex abuse victim who received money from Hastert has not been named publicly. On Monday, using the name James Doe, he sued Hastert for $1.8 million, saying he had received only $1.7 million of the promised compensation.
Hastert had been out on bail pending sentencing. When there is room for him, he will report to a federal prison where he can get medical treatment after suffering a life-threatening blood infection last year.
(Editing by James Dalgleish)