Q&A: The latest developments in the Dennis Hastert case

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Posted: Oct 19, 2015 5:27 PM
Q&A: The latest developments in the Dennis Hastert case

CHICAGO (AP) — A plea agreement in Dennis Hastert's hush-money case is expected to be handed over to the judge any day now. Among the biggest outstanding questions is: Will the 73-year-old former House speaker do time behind bars?

The Illinois Republican faces one count of breaking banking laws and one of lying to the FBI in an alleged scheme to pay $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 look at the case and what could happen next:

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Q: WHERE DOES THE CASE STAND RIGHT NOW?

A: Hastert's lawyers told a federal judge last week that they expected to submit a plea agreement as early as Monday. A plea would avert a trial and help ensure any embarrassing secrets about Hastert's past are not made public.

The full text of any plea would not be released until the day Hastert changes his plea, which is currently scheduled for Oct. 28. That's standard procedure, in part because the terms of a deal can be altered at the last minute. Hastert also has the right to change his mind until the moment he enters the plea in front of a judge.

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Q: WHAT IS THE MOST LIKELY SENTENCE?

A: Each count carries up to five years in prison. That means talks on an appropriate sentence probably resembled haggling at a bazaar. The defense may well have started by suggesting probation, while the U.S. attorney's office likely asked for at least a few years in prison. Several legal experts suggested that Hastert will probably serve six months to two years in prison.

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Q: ARE THERE GUILDELINES TO HELP DETERMINE A SENTENCE?

A: There's a complex federal formula that uses a point system to assist attorneys and judges in determining appropriate sentences. The higher the point total, the higher the sentence. A one on the scale equals around six months in prison. A score of 43 equals life. Hastert's starting number would likely be less than 10, according to federal guidelines. That he has no previous criminal record and that he is pleading guilty would knock off points.

But points could be added on the grounds that Hastert allegedly kept breaking the banking law even after banking officials questioned him about more than a dozen withdrawals of $50,000 in cash. A finding that Hastert used his formidable influence to commit crimes could also be an aggravating factor. The guideline formula relies on individual judgment, so the computed sentence can vary widely depending on who assesses the variables.

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Q: WILL HASTERT'S AGE AND HEALTH INFLUENCE A SENTENCE?

A: Not necessarily. Judges frequently imprison defendants of all ages and health conditions. But defense attorneys often broach those factors, especially if an extended sentence will put someone behind bars past life expectancy.

"A defense attorney might say, 'If you sentence my 75-year-old client to five years in prison, that's a life sentence!'" said Julian Solotorovsky, a former federal prosecutor. "You can argue that. But it doesn't always work." Hastert, in his mid-70s, has spoken publicly about suffering from diabetes.

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Q: DOES A PLEA DEAL NEED THE JUDGE'S OK?

A: Yes. Presiding judges have the final say on the terms of a deal and whether to accept the plea. Judges can choose to reject an agreement on multiple grounds, including finding that a recommended sentence is too lenient or too severe or that the written agreement does not provide a complete enough account of the crime.

If the judge rejects Hastert's deal, both sides would have to go back to the drawing board to see if they can agree to new terms addressing the judge's objections. A second run at a deal — knowing the judge's parameters — would probably be even more difficult. And that could open the possibility of Hastert choosing to give up on talks and take his chances at a trial.

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Q: ARE THERE DIFFERENT TYPES OF PLEA DEALS?

A: Yes. Some pleas fix a specific sentence that both sides agree upon. If the judge does not agree to that sentence, the entire deal becomes invalid. Other plea deals offer a sentence range, leaving the final call to a judge. But the latter option would require that prosecutors argue in open court why a sentence should be longer and for the defense to argue why it should be shorter. The risk for Hastert is that prosecutors could feel compelled to offer details about his past conduct to justify a stiffer punishment.

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Associated Press Writer Eric Tucker in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm .