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L’affaire Hastert

Washington and Illinois are abuzz with l’affaire Hastert, the increasingly sordid tale of the former Speaker of the House of Representatives who is facing a federal indictment for illegal money transactions allegedly used to pay off a person with whom he is thought to have had sexual contact years ago while working as a high school teacher and wrestling coach. Lots of details are yet to emerge, but leaked information suggests this was not a run of the mill affair, but a relationship with a young man, under age, on one of his high school wrestling teams. Hastert is alleged to have paid him $3.5 million in hush money.

Hastert has made no public comment and has issued no denial of the charges. He is due in court next week so we may learn more. Wheaton College has already scrubbed his name from its public policy institute, he has resigned from his lobbying firm, long time acquaintances are expressing shock, state officials are cancelling plans for a $500,000 statue in the Illinois capitol building, the high school where he taught is denying any knowledge of an affair, and former colleagues in Washington are issuing carefully worded statements of dismay over the tragedy of it all.

Sexual abuse of a minor is a terrible thing and, if that’s what we’re dealing with here, then attention ought to shift to concern for the well-being of an individual who has lived with the consequences of misplaced trust in an adult authority figure for a long time. But another question needs attention as well: How is it that a former teacher, state representative, and Congressman has $3.5 million in loose cash sitting around available to pay hush money?

The answer these days is that public service often means personal enrichment. When Hastert arrived in Congress in 1987 his largest asset was a farm in southern Illinois that his wife inherited worth between $50,000 and $100,000. By the time he left Congress twenty years later his assets had ballooned to between $3.1 million and $11.3 million, according to The Washington Post. Most of the wealth was amassed through land deals in rural areas about to experience major growth and development. And in at least one case this had little to do with being a smart investor.

Early in the 2000s Hastert and two partners purchased 138 acres of farmland in rural Plano, Illinois. It was a few miles from a proposed new highway. Hastert became a champion of the highway, earmarking over $200 million for the $ 1 billion dollar parkway in a federal transportation bill in 2005. Four months after the bill was signed Hastert and his partners sold off the now valuable land near the planned highway. His share of the proceeds is alleged to be about $ 3 million. Hastert’s participation in the deal was not made public until 2006.

Since leaving Wall Street Hastert joined a well-connected Washington law firm as head of its government relations practice lobbying on behalf of energy, tobacco, and financial service companies. His ability to call upon old friends and colleagues who continue to vote on sensitive legislation made him as much as $1 million to $2 million annually, according to knowledgeable estimates. It’s been a good run until last week, his reputation as a genial, friendly, non-polarizing leader more and more appealing in the era of slash and burn politics.

The mere hint of a sex scandal can, of course, turn a public servant’s career to toast and often into legal entanglements that threaten prosecution and jail. But apparently the law and public opinion leave open vast opportunities for public officials to use their position for enormous personal financial benefit. And it’s not as if the highway scam had no potential victims. Many local people were alarmed over the impact a highway cutting a large swath through their rural communities would have on an agricultural way of life and on the environment. And then there are the lobbying clients, including Lorillard Tobacco, the third largest manufacturer of cigarettes, including its new line of e-cigarettes. We’re right to be deeply concerned about the victim of some form of sex abuse years ago. But why don’t displaced farm communities and lung cancer victims also register on our scale of outrage?

The most recent l’affaire Hastert may well destroy him. The earlier affair simply made him rich. And that says a lot about the entitlements many in the political class have come to expect and that much of the public has apparently learned to tolerate. L’affaire Hastert will keep the press busy over the coming weeks and will prompt a lot of outrage. Meanwhile we are left to ponder why some forms of abuse lead to jail and others just to the good life.

John H. Thomas
June 4, 2015

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