As the trial of former House speaker Dennis Hastert drew to a close—he received a 15-month sentence for trying to circumvent banking laws that, as Mike Riopell as pointed out, Hastert himself shepherded through Congress—I caught up on the letters written on his behalf in support of leniency. A lot’s been made of them, particularly of the prominence of their authors: former majority leader Tom DeLay, former CIA director Porter Goss, and former Illinois attorney general Ty Fahner, among others.
It is in some ways surprising a gesture to make, given the nature of Hastert’s crimes—the judge called him a “serial child molester"—to which he admitted to in court today. Perhaps more surprisingly, the reasons went beyond the obvious case for leniency—Hastert’s age, his ill health, the unlikelihood that he would commit further crimes. The collective case they tried to make reflected the major themes of Hastert’s career in Congress, paralleling what my colleague David Bernstein found when he traveled to Yorkville to unlock the city’s silence.
How he got to the heights of Congress from tiny Yorkville is not without historical irony:
Hastert’s eventual ascension to the speakership was practically accidental. His fellow Republicans hastily drafted him into the role during a media frenzy that focused on the extramarital misdeeds of his two predecessors, Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston. (Hastert was viewed as the safe, no-skeletons-in-the-closet choice.)
He’d leverage yet another scandal, as Philip Bump pointed out in the Washington Post yesterday, calling for Bill Clinton’s impeachment shortly before rising to the speaker’s chair. As Bernstein describes, Hastert’s back story and mien made him suitable to end the chaos:
Hastert also appeared to have in spades two qualities that the best politicians possess: relatability and trustworthiness. It’s nearly impossible to find a profile of or anecdote about the man in which he isn’t hailed as a “straight shooter” or a “regular guy.” Plain of appearance (“He looks like an unmade bed,” a Democratic pol once described him) and of speech (“He speaks in a sticky downstate-Illinois monotone,” the author Jonathan Franzen observed in a 2003 New Yorker profile), Denny epitomized the ordinariness of his hometown.
It’s remarkable how much this shows up in the letters of support:
“Perhaps, the Speakers [sic] greatest gift to the House was trust. My belief is that Members found him very approachable and took him at his word. I know many viewed him as ‘Mr. Main Street, America’—a rock solid guy with center of the country values,” Goss wrote.
“It’s one thing to list the things a guy did. Much more important to me was the attitude with which he did them. He was almost a cartoon of the simple, blunt, straightforward public servant. This is something you can feel in the air, just being around a person,” wrote Joseph Ritchie, a well-known Chicago businessman.
“It was no accident that the people of his congressional district didn’t call him ‘Speaker Hastert,’ they called him ‘Denny.’ As I traveled with him throughout his district, I learned why that was true,” wrote David W. From, Hastert’s former campaign manager. “He genuinely took interest in the lives of the people he met in the communities of the 14th District and he worked to help them. He really represented their interests in Washington because he was one of them and that’s who he wanted to be.”
That last one is undeniably true. Hastert was a rainmaker for the 14th District, as Bernstein writes.
He consistently handed out more pork than a swine barn holds at a county fair. He funneled hundreds of millions of federal dollars toward transit and infrastructure projects in Kendall County and the rest of his district, for example, including the ultimately scrapped Prairie Parkway, which would have connected Interstates 80 and 88 and for which Hastert earmarked $207 million. Once he even slipped $250,000 for the Yorkville candy company Amurol Confections, a subsidiary of the chewing gum giant Wrigley (now part of Mars), into the federal defense budget. (The funds were to study a caffeinated gum; Hastert claimed the project would create 400 jobs.) Due in part to such largess, Kendall was the fastest-growing county in the nation—you read that right—from 2000 to 2010, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
It’s also the wealthiest county in Illinois, by median household income, and in the top 50 in the United States. And the requests for leniency reflected that:
“Although Denny reached one of the highest levels in the United States Government he never forgot who he was and where he came from. Today Kane and Kendall Counties have been the benefactors of new and safe bridges, Sullivan Road Bridge and Orchard Road Bridge. Roads that were in dire need of expansion have been improved widened and thousands of acres of open space that dozens of generations that come after us will enjoy,” wrote Anne Vickery, Kendall County Board Chairman. "I can only hope that they ask themselves ‘how did anyone manage to save this beautiful pristine area for me to walk, jog and breath [sic] deeply’? How many have looked up the hill from the Fox River at the Kendall County Historic Court House built in the 1860’s [sic] and wondered ‘who had the foresight and capacity to save this unique and beautiful building’? All of these things came to pass under my friend Dennis Hastert who used his position to help counties, villages, and cities become an even better place to live and raise our families.”
“I think people totally lack empathy for their fellow human beings,” wrote Nancy D.J. Martin, another Kendall County Board member. "Maybe we should remember not to judge others, lest we be judged or only those without sin cast the first stone. If we want to wipe out all the things that a person may have done, maybe we ought to wipe out some of the things that we have benefited from. Take down the Orchard Road bridge, don’t worry about a plaque in the old courthouse because it would no longer be there. How about we no longer enjoy the Hoover Forest Preserve for future generations.”
The rise of Kendall and Kane Counties benefited Hastert with more than just votes, Bernstein writes:
Consider the 2006 revelation by a nonpartisan D.C. watchdog group, the Sunlight Foundation, that Hastert, [Dallas] Ingemunson, and their old Yorkville friend Thomas Klatt had amassed 130-plus acres of farmland near the proposed route of the Prairie Parkway. The trio quickly flipped the land, and Hastert raked in a cool $2 million profit. Critics assailed the “Hastert Highway” deal, likening it to insider trading. (“Highway Robbery,” Salon harrumphed.) But the scandal barely registered on Yorkville’s public outrage meter. If it wasn’t illegal, why couldn’t Denny make a buck like anyone else? Besides, for everything he’d done for the town and the rest of the district—heck, for the whole country—over the years, he deserved it and then some.
That same year, Tribune reporters found that Hastert’s net worth—a year before he left Congress to become a lobbyist—was over $6 million, mostly from land deals that rode increasing property values in an area that had gone from farmland to exurbs in his lifetime.
In the end, the political bonds Hastert built, which would allow him to build the hush money that was his downfall, collapsed under the weight of his actions. In one last bombshell, one of the anonymous victims revealed himself to the court as Scott Cross, the brother of former Illinois House GOP leader Tom Cross, who began his political career as a protégé of Hastert. Hastert reached out to Tom Cross for a letter of support. He didn’t get one.