Hastert questions consume Capitol

House Republicans are questioning whether anyone tried to use former Speaker Dennis HastertJohn (Dennis) Dennis HastertBottom line Overnight Energy: Experts criticize changes to EPA lead, copper rule | House panel looks into plan to limit powers of EPA science advisers | Senate bill aims for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 Feehery: It's Trump's race to lose MORE’s dark secret against the Illinois Republican during his two decades in Congress. 

The Capitol has been abuzz about the Hastert allegations this week, and several GOP lawmakers are raising the specter of whether anyone demanded political favors in exchange for their silence.

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“Was there any undue influence able to be imposed based on the knowledge of a secret that could damage him?” asked one House GOP lawmaker, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue. “That’s sort of the scrutiny we all have to endure, and as you look retrospectively now at what we know: Was there an appropriate filter?

“It doesn’t have the same kind of stench to it from a political influence standpoint,” the lawmaker added. “That said, everything starts somewhere.”

Hastert, 73, will be arraigned in federal court in Chicago next week on charges that he illegally withdrew $3.5 million in hush money to conceal past misconduct. He is also accused of lying to the FBI about his reason for the large bank withdrawals.

Since the indictment, law enforcement sources have said the misconduct was sexual in nature and involved a former student. Hastert has coached high school wrestling and football.

The arraignment had been set for Thursday, but is now delayed until June 9. Hastert has not commented publicly since the indictment came down last week.

The payments to a person only known as “Individual A” began in 2010, several years after Hastert left Congress to become a lobbyist, and the financial arrangement doesn’t appear to have anything to do with politics or legislation.

The fact that the former Speaker put himself in a position where he could have been blackmailed is “nauseating,” remarked freshman Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyEleventh Democratic presidential debate to be held in Phoenix The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats brace for New Hampshire results McConnell: GOP has 'internal divisions' on bill to lower drug prices MORE (R-Ariz.). For Congress, “certainly it’s a black eye all the way around.”

Rep. Ted YohoTheodore (Ted) Scott YohoUS lawmakers push WHO to recognize Taiwan as independent state as coronavirus outbreak continues Hillicon Valley: Tech confronts impact of coronavirus | House GOP offers resolution to condemn UK over Huawei | YouTube lays out plans to tackle 2020 misinformation GOP lawmakers introduce resolution denouncing UK's Huawei decision MORE (R-Fla.), too, is worried Hastert had been “compromised” while serving as Speaker — a powerful job that put him second in line to the presidency.  

“Not that our founders were saints, but you’re giving payouts like that, you’re getting blackmailed. It compromises you,” Yoho said in an interview.

“When you become compromised, how does that influence somebody’s decision-making knowing they’ve got something held over their head, someone saying: ‘Yes, you will vote this way.’ ”

Lawmakers could be confronted with a number of questions — and decisions — stemming from the allegations against Hastert.

On Tuesday, The Huffington Post reported that a top Obama administration official, former Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), learned years ago of the sexual abuse allegations against Hastert. Watt has led the Federal Housing Finance Agency since 2014.

In a statement, Watt said he had heard an “unseemly rumor” about Hastert more than 15 years ago.

“It would not be the first nor last time that I, as a Member of Congress, would hear rumors or innuendoes [sic] about colleagues,” he said. “I had no direct knowledge of any abuse by former Speaker Hastert and, therefore, took no action.”

The story raised questions about whether anyone else in Congress might have known about the allegations against Hastert and whether they reported it.

No one on the current House Democratic leadership team had ever been told about the Hastert allegations, aides said.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthySunday shows preview: 2020 Democrats jockey for top spot ahead of Nevada caucuses GOP climate plan faces pushback — from Republicans House GOP campaign arm mocks Democrats after stumbling upon internal info on races MORE (R-Calif.) told reporters this week it would be “premature” to discuss any sort of congressional inquiry or whether Hastert’s portrait, unveiled in 2009, should be removed from its prominent place in the Speaker’s lobby, just off the House floor.

The decision of whether the portrait stays or goes will be left up to Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerCoronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 Lobbying world Pelosi-Trump relationship takes turn for the terrible MORE (R-Ohio). His spokesman had no comment on the matter Tuesday, even as Hastert’s alma mater, Wheaton College, yanked his name off its government economics center.

Questions also have cropped up about whether Hastert would be able to keep his pensions if convicted. He currently pulls in about $100,000 a year from his 20 years in Congress, six years as a state legislator and 15-plus years as a high school teacher and coach in Yorkville, Ill., the Chicago Tribune estimated.

The bulk of that — roughly $73,000 a year — is from his congressional pension.

Members of Congress can lose their pension if they are convicted while in office of one of 33 specific federal laws, including making false statements to law enforcement officials.

Because the alleged crime happened after Hastert left Congress, his pension would not be affected, said Brett Kappel, a D.C.-based attorney who advises lawmakers on campaign finance, lobbying and ethics issues.

Neither could Congress pass a law to strip Hastert of his pension if he is ultimately convicted, Kappel said. That’s known as an “ex post facto” law, which is banned by the Constitution.

“They can take down his portrait, but they can’t take his pension,” Kappel said.

For now, no one is talking about a congressional investigation or review into Hastert’s tenure on Capitol Hill, from 1987 to 2007.

From Chicago to Capitol Hill, close friends and colleagues are still reeling from the allegations.

“It’s incredibly disappointing. I have never seen anything so impact the body in a long time,” said Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeTrump's best week ever? McCarthy raises over million in Q4 for House GOP GOP leader warns lawmakers on fundraising: 'Getting our ass kicked' MORE (R-Okla.), a longtime Hastert friend who just months ago had bumped into the lobbyist and former Speaker in the halls of the Capitol.

“I will say that everybody was taken off guard,” added Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a fellow Illinois Republican who didn’t serve with Hastert but who represents an area that had once been part of Hastert’s district.

House Ethics Committee Chairman Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) told The Hill he was “shocked and saddened by these revelations” about Hastert but had no comment about the possibility of Congress getting involved.

Despite the serious charges against him, Hastert still has some loyal allies among his former congressional colleagues.

“Denny Hastert was always the kindest and most hard workingmember of Congress that a person could ever ask to work with,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who was first elected to Congress in 2002, when Hastert was Speaker. “I hold him in the highest esteem and hope that these challenges he is dealing with turn out in the right way for him and everyone else.

“I don’t know what the reality is there. I don’t think any of us do.”

This story was updated at 8:29 p.m.