CHICAGO (AP) — Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert pleaded guilty Wednesday in his hush-money case — a move that sealed the downfall of a politician who rose from obscurity in rural Illinois to the third-highest office in the nation.
The hearing in Chicago was the 73-year-old Republican's first court appearance since June, when he pleaded not guilty in the wake of an indictment alleging he agreed to pay $3.5 million to someone referred to only as "Individual A" to hide past misconduct by Hastert.
The Associated Press and other media, citing anonymous sources, have reported that the payments were meant to conceal claims of sexual misconduct from decades ago.
An overview of the case and what happens next:
Q: DID HASTERT ADMIT TO ANYTHING?
A: In the 15-page agreement he signed Wednesday, Hastert directly acknowledged for the first time that he engaged in a scheme to buy someone's silence. The deal says Individual A and Hastert "discussed past misconduct" by Hastert against Individual A, leading to the agreement for $3.5 million.
Q: WHAT CHARGE DID HASTERT PLEAD GUILTY TO?
A: The indictment charged Hastert with two crimes. He pleaded guilty to one — violating banking law. While he acknowledges in the agreement that lied to the FBI about why he was withdrawing so much cash, the plea deal indicates prosecutors will dismiss that charge later.
Q: WHAT DOES THE PLEA DEAL SAY ABOUT A SENTENCE?
A: The plea deal recommends Hastert serve between zero and six months in prison. That leaves open the possibility that he won't spend any time behind bars at all. Probation or home confinement might also be options.
Q: COULD THE JUDGE GO BEYOND THE PROPOSED RANGE?
A: Yes. Judge Thomas M. Durkin is not bound by the terms of the deal and could go beyond the recommendation. Durkin told Hastert before accepting his plea that he needed to understand that the court could impose a sentence of up to five years. Still, it's unlikely that the judge would impose a sentence far higher than the recommended range.
Q: WHAT DID HASTERT SAY IN COURT?
A: When the judge asked Hastert to describe his wrongdoing, a subdued Hastert read from a brief written statement that focused narrowly on how he technically broke banking laws. Neither he nor prosecutors revealed any new details about the precise nature of the past misconduct.
Q: WHEN IS HASTERT'S SENTENCING?
A: Sentencing was set for Feb. 29. A long timespan between a guilty plea and sentencing isn't unusual. The four months gives court officials time to prepare a presentencing report on Hastert, and it gives attorneys on both sides time to prepare for arguments. It's likely that prosecutors will push for at least some prison time, while defense attorneys may ask for probation.
Q: ARE THERE ADVANTAGES TO PLEADING GUILTY?
A: Pleading guilty allows Hastert to avoid a trial that could have divulged embarrassing secrets he presumably wanted to keep under wraps. Defendants who plead guilty also tend to receive lighter sentences than those who put the government through a costly trial. A plea deal with Hastert offers prosecutors a chance to secure the conviction of a high-profile defendant.
Q: DOES THE INDICTMENT HAVE DETAILS ABOUT THE MISCONDUCT?
A: No, but it offers a few hints. It notes in the first sentence that Hastert was a high school teacher and coach from 1965 to 1981 in Yorkville, west of Chicago, strongly suggesting that the alleged payoffs are tied to that period of his life.
Q: HOW WERE THE WITHDRAWALS ORGANIZED?
A: Hastert allegedly made 15 withdrawals of $50,000 — for a total of $750,000 — from June 2010 to April 2012, when his banks questioned him. It's what he allegedly did next that would make his actions criminal. After learning withdrawals over $10,000 are flagged, he supposedly began withdrawing cash in smaller increments, eventually withdrawing $952,000 from 2012 to 2014.
Q: WHAT'S THE LIE HE ALLEGEDLY TOLD?
A: FBI agents began investigating Hastert on suspicion of violating banking laws in 2013 and first questioned him on Dec. 8, 2014. When they asked if he was taking out so much cash because he didn't think it was safe in banks, the indictment says Hastert answered: "Yeah, I kept the cash. That's what I'm doing."
Q: WAS HASTERT BEING EXTORTED?
A: The indictment said one line of inquiry was whether Hastert was a victim of extortion, but it never offers details or a direct allegation. Authorities have never said whether they considered charging "Individual A" with extortion.
Associated Press Writer Eric Tucker in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
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