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Sanford Horowitz: Why Is Dennis Hastert Only Serving 15 Months in Prison?

In under a decade, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., went from standing second in line to the presidency to being sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for bank fraud linked to multiple allegations of child abuse.

So who exactly is Dennis Hastert, and why is an alleged child molester serving only 15 months in prison?

Who Is Dennis Hastert?

Hastert was the 51st speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 1999 to 2007. While some may know him as the longest-serving Republican House speaker in history, his extensive career began as a humble teacher and wrestling instructor at Yorkville High School in Yorkville, Ill.

He entered politics in 1980 as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives. In 1999, he earned the nickname of the “Accidental Speaker” because of his career jump from a junior position to speaker after Newt Gingrich was forced out and an expected successor was condemned by an extramarital affair.

In 2007, Hastert lost his position as speaker when the new Congress started, yet his recent child molestation accusations have brought him back into the spotlight.

What Was Hastert Initially Charged With?

The FBI began investigating Hastert when the bureau caught wind of him repeatedly taking out $9,000 from different banks, a technique called “structuring.”

Federal law requires that when someone conducts a cash transaction at a financial institution in excess of $10,000, either a deposit or a withdrawal, the bank must report the transaction to the federal government. If someone wanted to avoid the reporting requirement altogether, they would “structure” the transaction (or series of transactions) in amounts under $10,000.

Structuring cash withdrawals is a method used to avoid reporting transactions over $10,000 to regulators, which is a requirement under the anti-terrorism Patriot Act.

Ironically, Hastert was a big supporter of the Patriot Act. He is said to have made a total of 106 illegally structured withdrawals between July 2012 and December 2014, combining to a total of $952,000. 

Hastert had knowledge and intent to avoid reporting his cash withdrawals to regulators, and therefore he is susceptible to the criminal penalties under 31 USC § 5324.

More About Structuring

Since the Patriot Act, all cash transactions or withdrawals of over $10,000 must be reported to the federal government. A drug dealer might prefer not to alert the authorities that he conducted cash transactions; an agent from the government might ask him to explain the source of his funds.

If our drug dealer wanted to conceal that he had $18,000 in cash, he would not deposit it all at once; he would make two separate deposits for $9,000 each. That is structuring.

Hastert came under scrutiny because he behaved like our hypothetical drug dealer. He was structuring cash withdrawals, by withdrawing amounts under $10,000 to avoid reporting his withdrawals to regulators.

Structuring applies to all cash transactions, not just income earned from an unlawful source.

Structuring is a federal criminal offense under Title 31 of the US Code, Section 5324. Under this section, “structuring transactions to evade reporting requirements (is) prohibited.” The crime of structuring carries a fine, a maximum potential sentence of five years in prison, or both.

The purpose of the statute prohibiting structuring of cash transactions to avoid currency reporting requirements is to prevent people from either causing the usually innocent bank to fail to file required reports or defeated the goal of the requirement that large cash deposits be reported to the Internal Revenue Service by breaking their cash hoard into enough separate deposits to avoid activating the requirement (U.S. v. Gabel, C.A.7 (Ill.) 1996, 85 F.3d 1217).

So it doesn’t matter whether the source of funds is from illegal activity. But what if someone isn’t aware of the reporting requirements?  Knowledge and intent to avoid the reporting of large cash deposits or withdrawals is important when convicting a person; evidence of structuring alone cannot provide basis for interference (U.S. v. Ismail, C.A.4 (Va.) 1996, 97 F.3d 50).   

How Did Structuring Lead to Sexual Abuse?

When the FBI asked Hastert about the withdrawals, he allegedly lied, stating that he was keeping the cash for personal use. He was initially charged with lying to federal agents, but the prosecutors dropped the charge as a part of the plea agreement.

The FBI had no suspicions of any sexual abuse until Hastert had his lawyers tell agents that he was being extorted by a former student who was “falsely” accusing him of molestation.

Investigators concluded that the molestation claim was not false and found others who said they were abused as well.

The controversy became even more complicated when prosecutors alleged that Hastert molested four students decades ago, yet could not charge him with any sexual crimes due to Illinois’ statute of limitations.

Currently there is no statute of limitations for sex crimes against minors, but that wasn’t the case until the law was updated on Jan. 1, 2014.

If any crime occurred before that date, a previous statute of limitations takes effect stating that there is a 20-year window for prosecution beginning after the victim turns 18. Therefore, none of Hastert’s four accusers could form the basis of a criminal case for molestation.

Hastert’s Sentencing, What Happens Now?

On April 27, 2016, Hastert pleaded guilty to making illegal structured bank withdrawals in an effort to pay hush money for molesting someone during his wrestling coaching years. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison and ordered to pay up to $250,000 to a victim’s fund.

Additionally, Hastert will have two years of supervised release once his prison term is finished and must register as a sex offender.

He did not explicitly admit to molesting the four children, but addressed the judge in his hearing and said, “I want to apologize to the boys I mistreated. They looked (up) to me and I took advantage of them.”

What Should I Do if I’m a Victim of Sexual Assault?

If you believe you are a victim of sexual assault, be sure to report the crime to your local law enforcement agency and obtain a copy of the police report.

There are a variety of services and support that can be provided based on individual circumstances. Local rape crisis centers can assist English- and Spanish-speaking individuals ages 13 years and older. Contact the 24-hour hotline in your area for assistance.

» Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center Hotline: 805.564.3696        

» National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800.656.4673

Sanford Horowitz is a partner with Horowitz Law in Santa Barbara.  The opinions expressed are his own. This article is not intended to provide legal advice. For legal advice on any of the information in this post, click here for the form or phone number on the Horowitz Law contact us page.

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