Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, the longest serving GOP Speaker in history, has been indicted for lying to the FBI and elaborately evading reporting requirements on large cash withdrawals for payments he allegedly made to a male former student whom Hastert sexually abused while he was a high school wrestling coach over 30 years ago. If you want to read what is known about the unfolding Washington scandal s far, as well as partisan attempts at spin, you can try Politico, The Week, Talking Points Memo, OpenSecrets.org, Washington Post, Bloomberg Business, The National Memo, NBC News, Washington Monthly, Outside the Beltway, The Hill, Daily Mail, Patterico’s Pontifications and The Daily Kos.
1. This is a personal and professional tragedy, no matter what else may be true. Hastert has a family, and once had a career and a relatively solid reputation. The family is still there, though wounded; the rest is gone, presumably forever.
2. Assuming that what is coming out as the reason Hastert was paying millions in hush money is in fact true, he abused his position of trust as a teacher and committed a heinous crime. Nothing that he did subsequently as a public servant, or endured as a consequence of his actions, mitigates the seriousness of that misconduct.
3. That he went on from this betrayal of trust and law to have a successful and productive career in public service is to his credit. It does not justify his concealing his earlier crime, or avoiding accountability for it.
4. The unnamed student was and is a victim. He is also apparently a blackmailer, and Hastert is, in turn, a victim of extortion. Blackmail is itself a terrible crime. Hastert’s former student is neither justified in nor relieved of full responsibility for his own crime because of his mistreatment by Hastert as a child all those decades ago.
UPDATE: Legal ethics expert Stephen Gillers argues that this is not blackmail, but rather a private settlement arrangement, which the law and public policy encourages. I have my doubts about this. Certainly a long-term, never ending, demand for money backed with threats of personal ruin becomes, if not illegal, then the unethical equivalent of extortion.
5. Geraldo Rivera is being excoriated because he referred to Hastert as a victim, and suggested in a tweet that because he “lied re being shaken down to avoid embarrassment,” law enforcement should leave him alone and focus only on the blackmailer. Rivera deserves to be excoriated. So Geraldo thinks avoiding embarrassment–as in public accountability for a crime—justifies an illegal cover-up by a public figure and lobbyist? Turn in that law license, son.
6. I would be interested, however, in knowing how many of Geraldo’s critics nodded their heads vigorously to the same rationalization when it was being made to justify Bill Clinton’s false statements under oath about Monica Lewinsky. Hey, doesn’t everybody lie about sex with student wrestlers?
7. I would also like to hear the exact reasoning of Democrats who think there is political significance to this. I have read that this means that Hastert is a hypocrite. Explain, please. Is the theory that former child molesters are ethically obligated to support gay rights? Do they really want to do down that road?
8. Meanwhile, I recall the accolades heaped on Ted Kennedy when he died, noting that he went on from a serious episode of misconduct (I’ll say it was serious: he committed negligent homicide, lied about it and covered it up) to be an important and productive member of Congress. I don’t see why the same couldn’t just as accurately be said of Hastert, who didn’t kill his victim, and whose hush money pay-off just occurred later. The Kennedy clan made out its seven figure checks to poor Mary-Jo’s family right away, and before the advent of the regulations Hastert is accused of violating. Oh, wait: by definition only Democrats can be honorable public servants after a crime. Sorry, I forgot.
9. Here’s a disturbing thought: one of Hastert’s most prominent failures as Speaker—in addition to leading one of the most corrupt and venal group of Republican Congressmen since the Gilded Age—was his lack of responsible action to deal with Rep. Mark Foley, who was sexually harassing male pages. Did Hastert’s own predilections in that respect lead him to empathize with Foley?
10. The most revealing aspect of this mess from an ethics point of view will be how various pundits and pols attempt to spin it to advance their own interests.