Bush-era House Speaker Denny Hastert, who was indicted yesterday, is a living, breathing embodiment of everything sleazy and wrong with U.S. politics. That is highlighted not only by his central role in enabling every War on Terror excess, but also by this fact:
Hastert's ability to make such large cash payments probably came from his career as a K Street lobbyist. He entered Congress in 1987 with a net worth of no more than $270,000 and then exited worth somewhere between $4 million and $17 million, according to congressional disclosure documents.
That common arc is more of an indictment of U.S. political culture than Hastert himself, but he's certainly been happily and hungrily feeding at the trough. A political system that essentially ensures that every powerful political official becomes extremely rich is one that is inherently corrupt -- as we've been taught for decades about those Bad Other Countries -- and that is the most interesting and most important part of this story.
But Hastert was not indicted for any of that. Nor was he indicted for the alleged, unspecified "past misconduct" against an unnamed person to whom he agreed to pay $3.5 million to keep concealed.
Instead, Hastert was indicted for two alleged felonies: 1) withdrawing cash from his bank accounts in amounts and patterns designed to hide the payments; and 2) lying to the FBI about the purpose of those withdrawals once they detected them and then inquired with him. That's it. For those venial acts, he faces five years in a federal prison on each count.
Hastert is about the least sympathetic figure one can imagine. Beyond his above-listed sins, he shepherded the 2001 enactment and 2005 renewal of the Patriot Act, whose banking provisions, in sweet irony, seemed to have played a key role in his detection and in creating the crime of which he stands accused. His long record in Congress involved, among many things, denying equal rights to people based on the "Family Values" tripe, as well as continually supporting ever-increasing penalties and always-diminished rights for criminal defendants. So he's reaping what he sowed.