CHICAGO >> Dennis Hastert will step before a federal judge Wednesday to learn his sentence in a hush-money case centered on accusations that the former U.S. House speaker sexually abused at least four students decades ago when he coached wrestling at an Illinois high school.
Hastert pleaded guilty last year to breaking banking law as he sought to pay $3.5 million to someone identified in court papers only as Individual A to conceal a dark secret from the Republican's past. His plea deal suggested anything from probation to a maximum of six months behind bars.
But after prosecutors lifted a veil of secrecy from the case, the judge made comments suggesting he might impose a longer sentence, potentially putting Hastert behind bars for years, because of the abuse allegations.
Word that one of the accusers will speak at the sentencing hearing is sure to turn up the pressure on Judge Thomas M. Durkin to reject defense calls for probation and send the Illinois Republican to prison.
If that happens, Hastert, who was second in the line of succession to the presidency after the vice president and the nation's longest-serving GOP speaker, would become one of the highest-ranking politicians in American history ever to be incarcerated.
Defense attorneys are asking for probation on the grounds that Hastert has already paid a high price in disgrace. They also cite his health, saying a blood infection nearly killed him in November and that a stroke has limited his mobility.
Prosecutors did not recommend a specific sentence, but their reference to sexual abuse on nearly every page of their 26-page sentencing memo suggests they want notable prison time.
Hastert's plea deal set the sentencing range from zero to six months in prison. But guidelines in federal court are just that: guides. If he chooses, the judge could give Hastert the maximum sentence available — five years in prison.
Until this month, it was hard to gauge what Durkin might be thinking. But at a recent hearing, he let his dismay show for the first time.
He singled out how Hastert in a 2015 interview with federal agents sought to deflect blame by falsely accusing Individual A of extorting him with a bogus sex-abuse claim. That lie would factor into the sentencing calculations, Durkin added: "That's a big one."
SEX ABUSE ALLEGATIONS
Prosecutors went into graphic detail about the sex-abuse allegations for the first time this month, even describing how Hastert would sit in a recliner chair in the locker room with a direct view of the showers.
Individual D, the one who plans to testify Wednesday, said he was 17 when Hastert abused him after offering the teen a massage, according to court documents filed by the government.
The victims, prosecutors said, were boys between 14 and 17. Hastert was in his 20s and 30s. The abuse occurred in a motel and the locker room at Yorkville High School outside Chicago.
It isn't clear whether Hastert will make a statement at the sentencing and, if so, if it would include an apology.
Hastert has not personally apologized— though his attorneys have described him as apologetic, saying their client "is deeply sorry ... his misconduct that occurred decades ago." Conspicuously absent was any mention of sexual abuse.
His lawyers may have risked raising the judge's ire when they questioned whether what Hastert did to Individual A — including touching his genitals during a massage — legally constituted sexual abuse.
Prosecutors hit back in their sentencing memo: "There is no ambiguity; defendant sexually abused Individual A."
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