Bill Press: A raw deal for Hastert

Bill Press: A raw deal for Hastert
© Greg Nash

As a Democrat, I know I’m supposed to cheer now that former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has been charged with federal crimes. But, in fact, I feel just the opposite. 

It looks to me like he got a raw deal, and ended up the victim of an overzealous federal prosecutor.

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Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condone Hastert’s rumored sexual abuse of a former student, if that’s what happened. But if that student still felt harmed, so many years later, why didn’t he go to the police instead of going to Hastert and hitting him up for hush money? And why hasn’t he been charged with extortion?

Remember, Hastert hasn’t been charged with sexual abuse. He’s been charged with “structuring” — taking out multiple bank withdrawals to avoid federal reporting requirements on large transactions — and then lying to the FBI about it. Ironically, the law against structuring is part of the Patriot Act, which Hastert helped get through Congress. 

But even that begs the question: As long as it’s his own money — and nobody’s accused Hastert of stealing — why’s it any business of the FBI whether he leaves it in the bank or not? 

In an interview, James E. Barz, former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, where the Hastert charges were filed, told me the “structuring” statute was designed for cases involving drug dealers or terrorism suspects. If they couldn’t be caught committing the actual crime, prosecutors could nab them for trading in large sums of mystery money. But, says Barz, if it’s a case of somebody taking his or her own money out of the bank to settle a private civil case, “one could legitimately question: Where’s the federal crime?”

“At this point,” Barz added, “we don’t know the full story, but it could be after being contacted by the bank about larger withdrawals, Hastert started withdrawing smaller sums, not to hide criminal activity from the government but to hide it from his family, which wouldn’t be criminal.”

Barz believes it’s likely that the FBI, once tipped off to Hastert’s withdrawals, originally investigated the case because it believed it had something to do with his official duties as Speaker or as a lobbyist. Once the FBI discovered it was a private matter about alleged sexual misconduct, and had nothing to do with public or illegal funds, Barz suggested one might question what federal interest was served by proceeding rather than referring the misconduct allegations to state law enforcement to handle. 

One thing’s for sure: If his name were Denny Harris, and not Denny Hastert, these charges would never have been filed. Hastert was charged with federal crimes only because he’s a high-profile politician. And that’s neither just nor fair. 

Strange, isn’t it? The Justice Department never prosecuted one single Wall Street executive in the wake of the recession, even after they destroyed the life savings of millions of Americans. Yet it went full bore after Hastert — for taking his own money out of the bank.

I guess the government figured Wall Street moguls were too big to jail. But not Hastert.

Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.