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Famous politician gets caught in his own web

Talk about a comeuppance. Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert, who helped force through Congress stricter laws against anonymous cash transactions, now faces financial ruin – and an extended jail sentence – thanks to the very same laws.

Hastert withdrew at least $1.7 million in cash from bank accounts he controlled while trying to avoid having the transactions reported to the US Treasury. That apparently set off alarm bells with the anti-laundering software banks use to identify “suspicious transactions” in customer accounts.

Now, Hastert has been indicted for violations of the Bank Secrecy Act and lying to federal investigators about the purpose of the withdrawals. Each charge carries a penalty of as much as five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The government can also seize every dime in the bank accounts Hastert used illegally.

The first crime Hastert stands accused of committing is “structuring.” This is the act of making an effort to avoid reporting cash transactions by breaking up one transaction into a series of smaller amounts. Hastert was evidently trying to avoid having the banks he dealt with complete a “currency transaction report,” which they must file with the US Treasury for cash deposits or withdrawals larger than $10,000.

According to the indictment, from 2010 to 2014, Hastert withdrew large sums of cash in small increments, through more than 100 separate transactions. By 2013, the activity had triggered an FBI investigation. But when the FBI asked Hastert about the cash withdrawals, he told them that he was simply holding on to the cash for his own purposes. That turned out not to be true – and it led to a second count in the indictment for lying to federal agents.

The indictment claims that Hastert paid the money to a person identified as “Individual A.” Law enforcement sources subsequently revealed that Individual A is a former male student that Hastert allegedly sexually abused while serving as a high school wrestling coach in the 1960s and 1970s.

There are numerous ironies implicit in the story, along with an important lesson that the mainstream media will never mention.

Irony #1: Hastert, who for decades has campaigned against “gay rights,” appears to be a closet homosexual.

Irony #2: The man who made millions as a lobbyist after retiring as speaker of the House of Representatives was compromised by the very system he helped sustain.

Irony #3: Hastert often took credit for spearheading enactment of the controversial USA PATRIOT Act. However, the indictment suggests that the FBI used the Act’s expanded financial reporting requirements to investigate his cash transactions.

Irony #4: Hastert is only the latest straight-as-an-arrow politician done in by the “structuring” statute. Just seven years ago, former New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer was felled when investigators discovered he was structuring cash withdrawals to make payments to prostitutes.

And the important lesson the media has completely overlooked?

It’s that fundamentally, there is no “victim” of the crimes for which Hastert was indicted. I’m not referring to the alleged sexual abuse decades ago, but rather, to his indictment for structuring and lying to the FBI.

Real crimes need to have a real victim. But who is the victim when someone withdraws lawfully earned money from his or her bank account? Or lies about doing it?

Put another way: Were you somehow injured in even the most remote way by Hastert’s unreported cash withdrawals or lying to the FBI? Was anyone you know injured? Indeed, can you conceive of any possible victim, other than Hastert himself?

There are countless federal, state, and local laws that criminalize conduct with no possible victim other than the perpetrator. Anti-drug laws are the most obvious example. In every state in the US, for instance, you can be incarcerated for mere possession of illegal plants.

There’s no doubt that Dennis Hastert has some explaining to do. But the real victim here of Hastert’s structuring scheme is Hastert himself, and no one else.

I suspect that prosecutors will drop criminal charges against Hastert. He’s a leading member of the political class and thus qualifies for special treatment. The end result could look like the case of Elliot Spitzer. There, prosecutors claimed there was “insufficient evidence” to bring Spitzer to trial.

Hastert might even get to keep the cash in the bank accounts he used for his structuring scheme, courtesy of a policy announced last year. The IRS Criminal Investigation Division says it will no longer confiscate funds associated solely with “legal source” structuring, except under “exceptional circumstances.” Earlier this year, the Justice Department announced it would follow the same policy.

Hastert’s millions – mostly generated from his lobbying activities after retirement – are unquestionably “legal source.” So, it’s possible he could get off scot-free. This is as it should be. However, even if Hastert escapes prosecution for a victimless crime, that doesn’t mean you will if you’re not politically untouchable.

Incidentally, the structuring statute is unique to the US. There’s nothing like it internationally, although a handful of countries ban “parceling” the transactions into smaller transactions below the applicable limits to avoid reporting. But other than the US, no other country explicitly targets lawful funds.

That fact suggests an obvious strategy: get your money out of the US into a financial system in which the government doesn’t look at your lawful assets as a piggy bank it can tap whenever it finds a pretense to do so. There couldn’t be a better time to start than now.

Mark Nestmann

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