Dennis Hastert’s political winter in Washington has been defined by two seemingly contradictory traits. He shrunk almost completely from the spotlight, while becoming so dogged in the pursuit of wealth that it puzzled his longtime friends.
After retiring from Congress in 2007, the Illinois Republican did not avail himself of the traditional perks afforded elder statesmen. He didn’t serve on commissions or join think tanks, never became an ambassador, and rarely made media appearances to dole out wisdom.
At the same time Hastert, 73, was relentless in pounding the K Street pavement, serving as a rainmaker for a law firm for the past seven years. He wasn’t a regular presence in the Capitol hallways lobbying his old colleagues, but he advised nearly two dozen corporate clients that paid millions for his counsel.
Now facing a multi-count indictment that alleges he tried to hide a $3.5 million payoff scheme meant to keep secret sexual impropriety with a minor decades ago, Hastert has gone even deeper into hiding. He has issued no statement defending or explaining himself, nor have any lawyers or representatives addressed the charges.
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Former aides and confidants have grown confused and anxious, unsure what to make of the man everyone liked to call “Coach,” a vestige from his life as a high school wrestling instructor. Some say Hastert has all but disappeared from the Beltway scene without ever actually retiring to the country house in Illinois that he seemed to relish most.
“He’s been working very hard and carrying his own bags at the airport,” said Vin Weber, a former colleague in the House and lobbyist. “Last time I saw him at the gate, he was relieved to be heading back to his farm.”
In interviews since Thursday’s indictment, Hastert associates said their worries have not been about his lobbying, a routine job here, but about his pace – his late-career drive to take on clients after decades of appearing to care little about money. Instead of spending his mounting fortune on his passion – antique cars – or new clothes, Hastert seemed to be hoarding his earnings, wearing the same suits he has since his time in Congress and living frugally.
The incongruity they cannot fathom is his withdrawal from the political world, where visibility is the normal currency of a lobbyist who needs to see and be seen among Washington’s power players. In the months and years leading up to the charges, his e-mails grew terse, friends said, and his appearances at GOP functions infrequent.
The network of former Hastert staffers and allies, unlike those of most former congressional leaders, seldom gets together. More than a dozen former aides, some of whom asked for anonymity to reflect candidly, said Hastert does not host reunions or happy hours. He “has let his relationships with almost everyone fall apart,” one former adviser said.
“That’s the type of person he is,” said former Hastert pollster John McLaughlin. “After he left as speaker, he was active as a lobbyist but I’ve never had dealings with him. He has stayed retired from politics.”
Hastert’s contemporary fellow leaders have maintained much higher profiles. Thomas Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader of that era, and Trent Lott, the Senate GOP leader, run influential firms in town and serve together on the boards of the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. Dick Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader guides a lobbying shop and basks in the glow of former strategists who, along with Daschle’s, pull many levers of power in the Obama administration.
Hastert’s alumni recall just two instances in which the former speaker gathered his erstwhile staff. Once was for the 2009 unveiling of his portrait, which currently hangs a few steps off the House floor along with those of other speakers.
The other get-together came when his son, Ethan Hastert, made a longshot run for the GOP nomination to claim his father’s seat, which Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., won after the speaker’s retirement. Hastert asked his ex-aides to attend a Washington fundraiser and donate to his son’s campaign, but even at that event Dennis Hastert did not seem eager to be there, according to one attendee who requested anonymity to speak freely about his former boss.
One thing that has made him crack a smile were comments about his weight loss. Hastert, who is a diabetic, stopped ordering steaks at one of his favorite haunts, Smith & Wollensky, and slimmed down. “Every time I see, I tell him how great he looks. He laughs and says, ‘That’s what happens you when leave the House,’” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. “He enjoys not having to be at all of those rubber-chicken dinners.”
News of the staggering payoff Hastert is alleged to have made – $1.7 million paid out to an unnamed individual since 2010, part of a planned $3.5 million plot – prompted a flurry of phone calls and speculation among those who have worked for him and alongside him.
Some wonder whether their old friend was under pressure for reasons they still do not understand. Former New York congressman Bill Paxon, considered Hastert’s closest friend, has been left stunned by the news, according to people who have spoken with him. Paxon has privately said to several Republicans that he knows only what he reads in the newspaper about Hastert’s troubles.
The financial burdens on Hastert may not have been limited to the “hush money” alleged in the indictment. Dickstein Shapiro, where Hastert worked until Thursday, had a successful lobbying practice until a year or so ago, with the former speaker playing the role of boldfaced-named advocate.
Since 2009 more than 20 corporate clients signed on with Dickstein for lobbying teams that included Hastert, paying $10.8 million to the firm. One prominent client, Lorillard Tobacco, paid more than $8 million for a lobbying group that included Hastert, former senator Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark, and former representative Al Wynn, D-Md.
His portfolio has been eclectic and enriching. According to regulatory filings, Hastert has worked for corporations in the energy, grain management, health care, education, and transportation industries as well as the governments of Turkey and Luxembourg.
But in late 2013 Hutchinson, Wynn and other lobbyists bolted Dickstein, taking with them several substantial clients, including Lorillard. Hastert was promptly put in charge of Dickstein’s lobbying shop as federal investigators were closing in on his unusual financial transactions.
Back in the far western suburbs of Chicago, those who have known him post-speakership say he often and unenthusiastically mentions his busy work schedule.
“He’s always going off about where he has to jet-set around the world for some company,” said Kevin Kapustka, 20, a college student who has volunteered for the campaigns of Hastert’s son, Ethan. “His running joke is that we should raise the retirement age because he’s working 40 hour weeks.”
After graduating from Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school, in 1964, Hastert taught for 14 years at Yorkville High School, where he met his wife, Jean. They married in 1973 and have two grown sons: Ethan is an attorney in Chicago and Joshua has been employed as a lobbyist.
Jean Hastert was mostly unknown in Washington during Hastert’s speakership. When she did visit, she would stay in a hotel since Hastert lived during the week with a pair of his senior aides.
On Thursday, Dickstein Shapiro removed Hastert’s biography from its website and announced that Hastert had resigned.
Fellow lobbyists who have interacted with in recent years described him as a political figure who was content to fade from the public eye.
“As a car enthusiast, the thing he loved was taking these trips out to Arizona in January with Paxon to go to car auctions and see his beloved old Lincolns, but I don’t remember him ever buying one,” said Robert Walker, a lobbyist and former Republican congressman.
In the Capitol where he once reigned supreme, Hastert is quickly becoming forgotten. Because of huge wave elections and retirements, only 164 members of the House – less than 40 percent – ever served when Hastert was speaker.
On a warm evening last fall, Hastert was spotted giving a tour to a small group in Statuary Hall at the Capitol during a vote as House members streamed past him. Only a handful of veteran reporters noticed and said hello.
His legacy had largely become an obscure rule that he deployed during his eight years as speaker. If something did not have the support of the majority of Republicans, he refused to put it on the floor.
These days a new generation of firebrand Republicans are agitating for the “Hastert rule” on any manner of issues, demanding Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, forbid votes unless a majority of his caucus supports a measure.
But Boehner has allowed the “Hastert rule” to become a thing of the past as must-pass legislation routinely carries the day with more Democrats than Republicans supporting it.