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June 26th, 2017

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Dennis Hastert and the Illinois Combine

John Kass

By John Kass

Published June 11, 2015

 Dennis Hastert and the Illinois Combine

Did Denny Hastert, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, really think he could get away with it?

He must have. He kept paying and paying, until the FBI came knocking, asking about all that cash he was withdrawing from his bank accounts.

And you know the rest.

Whether you consider it hush money to cover up sexual misconduct when he was a teacher and coach, or an attempt to right what he considered to be the wrongs of his past, there's one thing we do know:

It was no accident.

And now Hastert's sins buzz around him like wasps on meat.

Hastert isn't naive. He's spent a lifetime using leverage to get what he wants.

As speaker, he traded support for war for congressional earmarks to make his Republican colleagues look good. The Republican Party has yet to recover from that arrangement.

Still, he knows about power. So it is impossible to think of him as a hapless victim.

Dennis Hastert is a Republican boss of the infamous Illinois Combine that has run this politically corrupt state.

As such, Hastert even tried to influence the selection of federal prosecutors and prevent politically independent outsiders from wielding federal subpoena power.

I know he says otherwise. That's his public stance. And here's mine: He pushed and a few of us pushed back hard, and readers of this column pushed back even harder, and he dropped it.

He lost that public battle to the conservative Republican reformer, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, and to those of us who supported Fitzgerald against the Combine.

Fitzgerald got his choice for the top federal prosecutor here. And top aides to the mayor of Chicago went to prison and Outfit bosses, too, and all sorts of political figures who fed off the public trust.

Governors, too, went away. The Republican governor is now out of federal prison. And the Democratic governor -- who let top Illinois Republican Party guys wet their beaks in pension cash -- is still in prison.

Hastert knows all this. He knows the players. He wasn't accused of wrongdoing, but he was there, watching.

Yet through his mouthpieces and spinners, he's presented as an "aw shucks," down-to-earth high school wrestling coach, a guy who likes to work on his own cars.

But there isn't anything aw shucks about him.

He was installed in Congress for one thing: To deliver. And he delivered.

And he certainly must have known it would end this way:

Disgrace upon his family name; shame for himself if he's still capable of feeling it; a sad end to a long political career.

And when the FBI came knocking -- asking him why he withdrew $1.7 million in cash -- Hastert said, allegedly, that he kept that cash.

He told them, according to his indictment, that he didn't trust banks, so he had to gather that cash and keep it safe.

"Yeah," Hastert said. "I kept the cash. That's what I'm doing."

No, what he was doing, law enforcement sources say, was paying off a man who's known Hastert for years, back to the days Hastert was a wrestling coach at Yorkville High School.

The indictment states that Hastert was prepared to pay $3.5 million to compensate the other man for certain, unspecified wrongs.

"It was sex," a federal source told reporters Friday, adding that the payments had "nothing to do with public corruption or a corruption scandal."

I'm told Hastert could have kept the entire thing covered up, if he'd gone to certain lawyers, the kind who are practiced in paying off sexual partners.

The technical problem, if you've followed the story, is that Hastert set off alarm bells by first withdrawing too much at one time, and later by consistently withdrawing less than $10,000.

And I'm sure there are lawyers good enough to arrange hush money payoffs and call it legal. That's what they do.

But Hastert didn't go to the lawyers known for this work. He didn't trust them. If he had, then his secret would have been theirs and apparently, he couldn't handle it.

So he did it himself. And though I'm speculating here, I think we can see why:

He was ashamed.

An odd thing about this is that it apparently happened years and years ago, back in his wrestling coach days. And still he was willing to pay $3.5 million.

That means there is proof of it somewhere, which means the proof ostensibly existed when Hastert was speaker of the House. When he was second in succession to become president.

It was secret. But now his family knows and his friends. His lobbying firms have dropped him. He's been knocked off various paid boards.

And we won't see that planned $500,000 statue of Hastert in Springfield.

Our politicians never get enough of honoring themselves, do they?

Unfortunately, we won't see an old Denny in white marble, with his comb-it-forward Caesar look, like the bust of actor Charles Laughton, who played a Roman senator in "Spartacus."

We won't see a bronze of young Denny, as Yorkville High School wrestling coach.

But will we ever see the political class setting $500,000 aside to commission a statue of Fitzgerald, who led the fight to install politically independent federal prosecutors in Illinois?

I don't think so.

In American politics, some things are just not done.

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John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also hosts a radio show on WLS-AM.

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