CHICAGO (AP) — Dennis Hastert's hush-money case returned to federal court Thursday, with an attorney for the former House speaker telling a judge that Hastert intends to plead guilty.
If he goes through with a plea, it would avert a trial and keep secret potentially embarrassing details about Hastert's days as high school coach. The 73-year-old Republican stands accused of breaking banking laws and lying to the FBI in efforts to pay someone $3.5 million to hide claims of past misconduct. The Associated Press and other media, citing anonymous sources, have reported that the payments were meant to conceal claims of sexual misconduct decades ago.
A few key questions and answers about the case:
Q: WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE PLEA DEAL?
A: Not much. Hastert attorney John Gallo said that he expects to have a written plea agreement by Monday. The judge scheduled an Oct. 28 hearing for Hastert to change his original plea. Gallo did not describe any of the terms, including what counts Hastert would plead guilty to or what kind of sentence he would serve.
There is an outside chance that Hastert could still change his mind. Gallo told U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin that the defense "reserved the right" to go to trial if talks collapse in the final days.
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. A sentencing date is usually set immediately 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.
Q: WHAT ARE THE SPECIFIC CHARGES AND POTENTIAL PENALTIES?
A: Hastert is accused of evading federal banking reporting requirements by carefully structuring his withdrawals of hundreds of thousands of dollars in increments of less than $10,000. He then allegedly lied to the FBI about the reason for the withdrawals, telling them he did it simply because he didn't trust banks and preferred stashing some cash at home. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine on each of those two counts. He has pleaded not guilty.
Q: WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL STICKING POINTS IN PLEA TALKS?
A: Just because the sides appear to be on the verge of a final deal, that doesn't mean the talks have been easy. Jeff Cramer, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, has said a primary aim of Hastert's lawyers would be to ensure no details about alleged past misconduct show up in the plea deal, sentencing memos or in any other court document that would eventually be unsealed.
Another detail defense lawyers have likely been particularly insistent about leaving out: any mention of motive.
"Hastert may have no problem saying, 'I restructured withdrawals to avoid detection,'" Cramer said. "But he doesn't want to say why he did it." The recommended sentence could also be a point of contention. The defense would probably seek probation, while prosecutors might insist on at least some time behind bars on the grounds that a man who was once second in the line of succession for the presidency should have known better.
Q: WHAT ELSE WOULD HASTERT AND PROSECUTORS GET OUT OF A DEAL?
A: One of Hastert's main motivations for agreeing to change his plea to guilty would be to forestall any chance the government will present evidence in open court to jurors and the media. At any trial, prosecutors would likely want to provide jurors with at least some background about the alleged misconduct and could even call "Individual A," the person the indictment alleges Hastert agreed to pay, as a witness.
Judges are also more inclined to show mercy when a defendant agrees to accept responsibility.
For prosecutors, a plea guarantees a conviction in a high-profile case and avoids a costly, time-consuming trial.
"This case is a classic case where it is in everybody's interest to reach a plea," Andrew Herman, a prominent Washington-based attorney who has represented clients targeted by ethics investigations in Congress, has said.
Q: WHAT WAS THE MONEY FOR?
A: The May 28 indictment says Hastert agreed in 2010 to pay $3.5 million to Individual A to "compensate for and conceal" Hastert's "prior misconduct" against that person. The indictment itself does not specify the misconduct, though it says the other party "has known Hastert for most of Individual A's life." The first paragraphs of the indictment note that Hastert was a high school teacher and wrestling coach from 1965 to 1981 in Yorkville, west of Chicago. That suggests the charges are linked to that history without saying exactly how.
A person familiar with the allegations told The Associated Press that the payments were intended to conceal claims that Hastert sexually molested someone decades ago. The person spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Associated Press Writer Eric Tucker in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm .