Judge: Dennis Hastert accuser to be named in court as lawsuit goes to trial
CHICAGO — The man who has sued former U.S. House speaker Dennis Hastert, seeking the unpaid balance of an alleged $3.5 million hush-money pact over decades-old sexual abuse, will be named publicly during an upcoming civil trial, a judge ruled Thursday.
Unless a settlement is reached in the long-simmering Kendall County, Illinois, lawsuit, jury selection will begin Sept. 20 in a Yorkville courtroom.
Chief Judge Robert Pilmer has allowed the man’s breach-of-contract lawsuit to proceed under the pseudonym James Doe since it was filed in April 2016. In a brief court hearing Thursday, the judge agreed with Hastert’s attorney that continued use of the fictitious name is not appropriate during the trial.
“I’m disappointed, but we’ve always known that was a possibility so we were prepared for it,” the man’s attorney, Kristi Browne, told reporters afterward. “It doesn’t change that we intend to go forward with the trial.”
Browne had asked that the man be referred to as James Doe during the trial, as publicizing his name would cause “great psychological damage to him in the form of shame and embarrassment.” She also wanted the judge to admonish the media not to disclose her client’s identity.
Attorney John Ellis, who represents Hastert, said overcoming the presumption of public access requires exceptional circumstances under Illinois law, and potential embarrassment doesn’t meet that threshold. He argued that allowing the plaintiff to use the pseudonym inaccurately “makes it seem like this is a case where some question of abuse or misconduct is the question that needs to be determined by the jury.”
“This is a breach-of-contract case,” Ellis told the judge. “We’re at trial. The plaintiff is going to appear. He’s going to testify, and at this point it needs to be balanced. The defendant has been publicly identified since the inception of this lawsuit and will be prejudiced if it’s further referred to as ‘Doe versus Hastert’ during the trial itself.”
Hastert was a Yorkville High School teacher and state champion wrestling coach before entering politics in the early 1980s. He rose to become the longest-serving Republican House speaker in U.S. history. He stepped down from office in 2007, later working as a consultant and lobbyist.
In the lawsuit, a former Yorkville standout student-athlete whose family had close ties to Hastert alleged Hastert sexually abused him one night when the two stayed in a motel during an out-of-state wrestling camp in the 1970s. The student was 14 at the time.
His lawsuit said he suffered periods of unemployment, bouts of depression, hospitalization and psychiatric treatment. He never connected his problems to Hastert until 2008, when he learned his former coach allegedly had inappropriately touched someone else decades ago as well, according to the suit.
Hastert paid the man $1.7 million for his silence as part of a verbal $3.5 million pact but stopped payments in late 2014 after federal authorities, aware of suspicious bank withdrawals, approached Hastert to investigate whether he was being victimized.
The investigation instead revealed allegations that Hastert had sexual contact with the former student-athlete and some other male teens connected to the high school wrestling program decades ago.
Hastert was not charged with a sex crime, in part because the statute of limitations had expired. But he admitted in a federal plea deal that he was guilty of making illegally structured bank withdrawals to avoid reporting requirements.
At his 2016 federal sentencing hearing, during which the judge called him a “serial child molester,” Hastert was apologetic, saying he “mistreated” and “took advantage” of some of the boys when he was their coach. In a 2018 deposition in the lawsuit, Hastert denied anything sexual occurred with the man who sued and said he simply helped the boy with a groin injury.
Hastert, 79, has not spoken publicly about his legal troubles since the federal case. He was released from federal prison in summer 2017 after serving part of his 15-month sentence.
James Doe, whom federal prosecutors called “Individual A,” alleges in his lawsuit that Hastert promised “to pay every last dollar” of their unwritten agreement. He is seeking the remaining $1.8 million, plus accrued interest.
Tribune reporters learned his identity in early 2016. He is now in his early 60s and lives out of state. He has declined to comment, but his wife has acknowledged to the Tribune that her husband is a victim. The Tribune typically does not name victims of alleged sexual abuse without their consent unless they are identified in public proceedings.
Browne has said her client suffers anxiety each time “there has been a flurry of activity in the press” regarding Hastert, court documents show.
“My client has gone through extreme emotional distress as a result of what happened,” she said in court Thursday. “We’ve been fortunate that the press who have been covering this case have respected his anonymity. ... We just ask that the status quo remain the same.”
Ellis had no comment on whether Hastert will testify at the trial, though Hastert is listed as a potential witness for both sides. In an earlier ruling, Pilmer granted the media’s request to allow cameras in the courtroom for the trial, though images of the jury are prohibited.