By Jason Meisner and Steve Schmadeke, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
CHICAGO — Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert entered a plea of not guilty Tuesday afternoon to charges he paid hush money to cover up wrongdoing in his past and then lied about it to the FBI.
For 15 awkward minutes before the hearing began, Hastert sat at the defense table with the courtroom packed with reporters, his eyes darting to the ceiling and then down to his hands. Later, as the attorneys conferred with each other, Hastert sat by himself, staring straight ahead.
Hastert, 73, was released on his own recognizance. The judge set standard conditions of bond: He can’t violate the law, must attend all his court appearances and can travel only in the continental U.S. while the charges are pending.
Hastert had already surrendered his passport.
“Yes, sir,” Hastert said when asked if he understood the terms and conditions of the bail.
The arraignment was highlighted by U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin addressing head-on some potential conflict-of-interest issues that arose after he was randomly selected as the judge to hear the high-profile case.
The judge noted that he had made two donations to Hastert’s campaign more than a decade ago while he was a private citizen. He also said he had written an email in the mid-1990s to a Hastert staffer as part of his effort at the time to be appointed to the federal bench, “but nothing came of it,” said Durkin, who only became a federal judge a few years ago.
In addition, the judge said he had worked at the same law firm as Hastert’s son, Ethan, including working on one matter together.
“We were friendly business colleagues, but I do not consider him a personal friend,” Durkin said.
The judge said he didn’t think he should be disqualified from the case based on the federal statute at issue.
“I have no doubt I can be impartial in this matter,” he said.
But he said he wasn’t so naive to believe that some would not question his impartiality.
The judge said he would step aside if either side decided he should remove himself from the case. He asked for them to make that decision by Thursday.
“I will not be offended whatever the result, I assure you,” the judge said.
Earlier in the afternoon, Hastert arrived at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse for his arraignment on the federal charges.
Dressed in a blue tie and dark suit, Hastert got out of a black vehicle at 12:45 p.m. amid a scrum of cameramen and reporters. He was escorted by several Homeland Security officers through the revolving doors and went through security, not responding to shouts for comment.
Hastert got on an elevator to the 11th floor to apparently meet with the pretrial services department before his 2 p.m. arraignment. He was accompanied by three attorneys, one of whom shouted “Watch it!” as cameramen crowded in near the revolving door.
Earlier in the day, Hastert arrived at the Loop offices of the Sidley Austin law firm. Reporters yelled to him through the closed window of the vehicle, but the former U.S. House speaker did not respond.
Dozens of television crews and reporters from around the country were at the federal courthouse awaiting Hastert’s arraignment. The hearing was the Illinois Republican’s first court appearance since the bombshell charges against him were unveiled nearly two weeks ago.
A long line of people stretched down the hall in front of Durkin’s courtroom — all hoping to attend the arraignment. In a nearby courtroom being used to handle the crowd of reporters, about 10 journalists awaited the hearing with their laptop computers at the ready more than half an hour before the proceeding.
The indictment alleges Hastert agreed to pay $3.5 million to someone from his days as a high school teacher not to reveal a secret about past misconduct by the former House speaker.
Tuesday’s hearing came amid a deepening mystery surrounding Hastert’s alleged wrongdoing during his days as a teacher and wrestling coach decades ago in Yorkville, Illinois. The carefully worded, seven-page indictment unsealed May 28 only hinted at Hastert’s dark past in alleging he had agreed to willingly pay $3.5 million to a person identified as Individual A to hide previous wrongdoing, but federal law enforcement sources have said Hastert was making the payments to conceal sexual abuse of a Yorkville High School student.
Since the charges were filed, other details have bubbled to the surface. Law enforcement sources said the FBI had interviewed a second person who raised similar allegations of sexual abuse against Hastert that corroborated the account of Individual A. Last week, a onetime Yorkville resident took to national television to say Hastert abused her now-deceased brother while he was a student.
Amid the disclosures, Hastert has remained silent, staying out of public view while reporters scoured his home base in Chicago’s western suburbs for clues. Numerous former wrestlers under Hastert who have been contacted by the Tribune have either declined to comment or said they do not know the identity of the person described as Individual A.
Adding to the intrigue, no lawyer stepped forward to defend Hastert in the media as typically happens in high-profile criminal cases. It wasn’t until Monday afternoon that the identity of Hastert’s attorney was even made public when Thomas C. Green, a longtime white-collar defense attorney with the law firm of Sidley Austin in Washington, filed his appearance with the court.
(Freelance reporter Gary Gibula contributed.)
(c)2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert leaves Chicago’s Dirksen U.S. Courthouse on Tuesday, June 9, 2015, after pleading not guilty to charges that he evaded bank regulations and lied to the FBI. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS)