Dennis Hastert’s Money Problem

I have a long memory, so when I saw that the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois had charged former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert with “lying to the F.B.I.” about making large cash withdrawals from banks, it rang all kinds of bells. Some of the first diaries I ever wrote at Daily Kos were about FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds, and I haven’t forgotten the explosive charges she leveled at Hastert.

Vanity Fair has established that around the time the Dickersons visited the Edmondses, in December 2001, Joel Robertz, an F.B.I. special agent in Chicago, contacted Sibel and asked her to review some wiretaps. Some were several years old, others more recent; all had been generated by a counter-intelligence that had its start in 1997. “It began in D.C.,” says an F.B.I. counter-intelligence official who is familiar with the case file. “It became apparent that Chicago was actually the center of what was going on.”

Its subject was explosive; what sounded like attempts to bribe elected members of Congress, both Democrat and Republican. “There was pressure within the bureau for a special prosecutor to be appointed and take the case on, “the official says. Instead, his colleagues were told to alter the thrust of their investigation – away from elected politicians and toward appointed officials. “This is the reason why [Attorney General John] Ashcroft reacted to Sibel in such an extreme fashion,” he says “It was to keep this from coming out.”

In her secure testimony, Edmonds disclosed some of what she recalled hearing. In all, says a source who was present, she managed to listen to more than 40 of the Chicago recordings supplied by Robertz. Many involved an F.B.I. target at the city’s large Turkish Consulate, as well as members of the American-Turkish Consulate, as well as members of the American-Turkish Council and the Assembly of Turkish American Associates.

Some of the calls reportedly contained what sounded like references to large scale drug shipments and other crimes. To a person who knew nothing about their context, the details were confusing and it wasn’t always clear what might be significant. One name, however, apparently stood out – a man the Turkish callers often referred to by the nickname “Denny boy.” It was the Republican congressman from Illinois and Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert. According to some of the wiretaps, the F.B.I.’s targets had arranged for tens of thousands of dollars to be paid to Hastert’s campaign funds in small checks. Under Federal Election Commission rules, donations of less than $200 are not required to be itemized in public filings.

Hastert himself was never heard in the recordings, Edmonds told investigators, and it is possible that the claims of covert payments were hollow boasts. Nevertheless, an examination of Hastert’s federal filings shows that the level of un-itemized payments his campaigns received over many years was relatively high. Between April 1996 and December 2002, un-itemized personal donations to the Hastert for Congress Committee amounted to $483,000. In contrast, un-itemized contributions in the same period to the committee run on behalf of the House majority leader, Tom Delay, Republican of Texas, were only $99,000. An analysis of the filings of four other senior Republicans shows that only one, Clay Shaw of Florida, declared a higher total in un-itemized donations than Hastert over the same period: $552,000.

It wasn’t a whole lot to go with and certainly not enough to try to take down the Speaker of the House, but it was interesting that after Hastert resigned from Congress he went to work for Dickstein Shapiro, a lobbying firm that does a lot of business in Turkey. According to the New York Times, Hastert has just resigned from that firm where he was serving as the “co-leader of the Public Policy & Political Law Practice.”

Now, what Edmonds claimed way back when was that Hastert was accepting bribes from Turkish interests that were being laundered as bundled small campaign contributions. This is very resonant of what Hastert was just indicted for doing.

Apparently, he was caught up in some kind of extortion scheme and he was paying someone off in order to keep them quiet about some sort of indiscretion he had made in the past. To accomplish this, Hastert was making a lot of relatively small (under $10,000 a pop) bank withdrawals. Keeping each withdrawal below $10,000 was supposed to prevent bank reporting requirements from snapping into effect and prevent governmental scrutiny, but it didn’t work.

Perhaps part of his problem is that he was late adopting the practice of making the small withdrawals.

At first, Mr. Hastert provided $50,000 in cash from several bank accounts to the person every six weeks, for a total of 15 such exchanges, the indictment said.

Banks are required to report cash withdrawals of more than $10,000, and in April 2012, bank officials questioned Mr. Hastert about sizable withdrawals from his accounts.

That July, Mr. Hastert began making smaller withdrawals, of less than $10,000, and he continued providing them to the person at prearranged meeting places and times, the indictment said.

Later, the arrangements changed so that Mr. Hastert was providing $100,000 every three months, the indictment said.

Once bank officials have begun questioning your banking activity, you’ve already crossed the threshold to attracting scrutiny. The indictment is cryptic about the reason Hastert felt compelled to pay this hush money, but it does provide a few breadcrumbs to follow.

In 2010, during meetings between Mr. Hastert and the unnamed individual, the two discussed “past misconduct” by Mr. Hastert against the person, according to the indictment.

In those meetings and in later discussions, Mr. Hastert agreed to provide money to the person “in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct,” the indictment said.

It sounds like whoever was demanding these payments had been personally wronged by Hastert which means that this probably isn’t simply an example of someone discovering something illegal that “Denny boy” had done. The fact that in 2010 it is phrased as “past misconduct” could mean that it occurred while Hastert was still serving as Speaker of the House. The imagination can go in a lot of directions with these little tidbits. Is this an angry father who wants compensation for something that happened to his daughter? Is this someone who got screwed by being on the wrong side of some graft-fueled business deal or appropriation? Whatever it was, it was bad enough that Hastert was willing to pay any price to keep it quiet.

And I guess he thought he had some experience with breaking up big lump payments into small increments in order to avoid detection.

Back on June 1st, 2008, after learning of Hastert’s new post-congressional lobbying gig, lukury wrote “If there’s any justice in the world, Dickstein Shapiro will soon be adding Dennis Hastert to their [list of] ‘Ex-employees who are now [in the] convicted felons’ Hall of Fame.”

Well, as of today, Hastert is an ex-employee of Dickstein Shapiro. It’s been a long seven-year wait.

Perhaps before too long, the second half of that call for justice will come to fruition, too, and Hastert will be a convicted felon.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.