Punishment Or Mercy, Two Heartbeats From The Presidency
Apr. 11, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Dennis Hastert, who was the Speaker of the House from 1999 to 2006, is due to be sentenced for “structuring,” stemming from charges that he withdrew cash from his bank accounts in the amout of $9000 at a time in order to avoid triggering the requirement to report cash transactions of $10,000 or more. The reason for the withdrawals was the meat of the case: Hastert was being blackmailed by a man whom he had sexually molested when Hastert was his high school wrestling coach in the 1970s, several years before being elected to Congress.
There are only three ways to deal with a blackmailer. You can pay him and pay him and pay him until you’re penniless. Or you can call the police yourself and let your secret be known to the world. Or you can kill him.
–Wanley’s Trilemma, The Woman In The Window (RKO Radio Pictures, 1944)
The story, as laid out in the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum, is a sordid one. In 2010, about three years after Hastert left office, a person referred to as “Individual A” confronted Hastert at this office and demanded money. The statute of limitations for criminal prosecution had long since expired, but Hastert feared exposure and agreed to pay the man $3.5 million, with $50,000 up front.
Hastert’s bank became suspicious of the transactions, and eventually closed his accounts. The FBI got involved, and interviewed Hastert on December 8, 2014, when Hastert lied about where the money was going. Through his lawyer, he came clean “shortly afterwards,” and cooperated with the FBI to the point of recording two phone calls with Individual A.
As usual, it didn’t do him much good. The prosecutor characterized the second phone calls this way:
Once again, Individual A’s language and demeanor during this second recorded call were inconsistent with an individual extorting defendant through threats to make a false accusation public or even to make a true accusation public. Individual A did not say anything that could be construed as a threat.
This is despite the fact that
Individual A referred repeatedly to “promises” defendant had made, their “agreement,” that they both understood it was a “private, personal matter,” and that it was “nobody else’s business.” … Individual A said that people “buy their way out of trouble all the time,” and that there had to be a way to do it.
The FBI’s further investigation revealed at least three other former students who accused Hastert of molestation. All the stories were substantially similar, with the abuse happening under the guise of treating wrestling injuries. As far as the quote above goes, Hastert got the worst of both worlds. He coughed up $1.7 million dollars over four years, and in the end it all came out anyway.
The prosecution never specifically requests that Hastert go to jail, but does say that
Because this case has received substantial media attention, there is a meaningful opportunity for the sentence to promote respect for the law and to deter others from similar crimes. And the sentence should send the message that all are equal before the law—specifically—that a wealthy and powerful person who held high office is subject to the same sanctions as an ordinary citizen.
In contrast, the defense’s sentencing memorandum requests probation. The gist of the memorandum is that Hastert has suffered enough. Shortly after pleading guilty, he suffered a stroke that required two months of hospitalization, left him unable to walk, and that he needs help to feed, bathe, and clothe himself. He has disgraced his name and brought humiliation and dishonor to this family. As the memo puts it:
Mr. Hastert knows that the days of him being welcomed in the small towns he served all of his life are gone forever. He knows that, for the rest of his life, wherever he goes, the public warmth and affection that he previously received will be replaced by hostility and isolation. Mr. Hastert recognizes that this change is due to his own conduct and is not in any way the fault of others, who rightly disapprove, but it is nonetheless painful for him.
It’s hard to decide the right course of action here. On one hand, the case is unusual in that the crime Hastert is really being punished for is child molestation, even though he was convicted of structuring. If the guy was pulling out $9,000 at a time to blow on the ponies, it’s doubtful that he ever would have prosecuted; or if he did, that anyone would have thought jail was a good idea.
In some ways, it’s almost better to be an accused murderer than an accused child molester. There are plenty of murder victims of whom people have said, “That guy needed killing.” No one has ever said “That kid needed molesting.” That said, it’s hard to feel sorry for the first victim, Individual A. Whatever his suffering, one can’t avoid feeling that he got his “justice” with a cool $1.7 million. Of course, that doesn’t apply to the other victims. And no matter what the statute of limitations, if a high school senior who sleeps with his sophomore girlfriend has to have his life ruined, shouldn’t the same apply to Hastert?
It’s also hard to feel sorry for Hastert. Whatever his problems now, he brought them on himself. He also enjoyed a glittering political career, rising to one of the highest offices in the country. One wonders what he thought as the Walsh Act came to a vote during his speakership. That said, would putting him jail accomplish anything? Will putting this disgraced, broken, dying old man in a cage for six months do anything for the victims, or for society at large, unless it’s pour encourager les autres? “General deterrence” is a weak rationale for punishment in any case, but it’s especially weak here. The Venn diagram of les autres is the intersection of wealthy public figures who are also former child molesters.
Easy as it is to hate Hastert, it’s equally hard to see what good incarceration does other than giving us the joy of watching him suffer. Punishment, or mercy? The lady or the tiger?