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The man who was once second in line to the presidency stood quietly before a federal judge in Chicago yesterday. Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert pleaded not guilty to charges over an alleged effort to pay millions of dollars in hush money. The payments were reportedly to conceal sexual misconduct. Yesterday was Hastert's first appearance in court since his indictment late last month. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: After nearly two weeks hidden from public view, Dennis Hastert emerged from a black sedan outside of Chicago's Federal Courts Building to a throng of cameras and reporters. With a familiar hunch of his shoulders and a sullen look on his face, the longest-serving Republican speaker of the U.S. House said nothing as he walked with his attorneys into the courthouse. After pleading not guilty, Hastert was barely audible as he responded yes, sir, to Judge Thomas Durkin's questions, agreeing to the conditions of his release on bond. Judge Durkin then acknowledged his own possible conflicts of interest. The former federal prosecutor says he gave small campaign contributions to Hastert through his former law firm and that he worked with Hastert's son, Ethan, there. While saying he has no doubt he can be impartial, Judge Durkin is offering to recuse himself from the case. Legal observers say that may not be necessary.
RICHARD KLING: It's a small legal community. Everybody knows everybody.
SCHAPER: Richard Kling is a veteran criminal defense attorney and teaches at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
KLING: You go to lunches together and you go to events together. It doesn't mean you can't make an individual judgment.
SCHAPER: Federal prosecutors offered no new information about the charges beyond what is contained in the indictment. It accuses Hastert of skirting federal banking regulations by taking out huge sums of cash to pay hush money to someone identified as individual A and then lying about it to the FBI. The indictment alleges the former speaker agreed to pay individual A $3.5 million. Several news organizations report federal law enforcement sources say the money was to keep individual A quiet about sexual abuse decades ago when Hastert was a high school wrestling coach in Yorkville, about 50 miles west of Chicago. NPR has tried, but has not been able to independently verify those reports. Law professor Kling now expects Hastert to try to negotiate a plea bargain.
KLING: Because more of the allegations involving individual A will probably come out and because he will be a media sensation every day of the trial and I would imagine he wants to put this behind him.
SCHAPER: Hastert's defense and the prosecution have until late Thursday to decide whether to keep Judge Durkin on the case or to seek a new judge. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.