Nine years before being indicted on financial charges -- reportedly an attempt to cover up sexual misconduct involving a male high school student -- Dennis Hastert spent his last few months as House speaker alternately promoting himself as a defender of child welfare and fending off accusations that he helped cover up another Republican's gay sexual misconduct scandal.
In July 2006, shortly before Democrats won the midterm congressional elections and ended his speakership, Hastert spearheaded a bill to toughen punishments for sex crimes against children. The legislation, named after the abducted and murdered Florida boy Adam Walsh, passed the Republican-controlled House unanimously. In a statement at the time, Hastert said protecting children from predators was as high a priority for him as national security -- this, post-9/11 and during two wars.
"At home, we put the security of our children first, and Republicans are doing just that in our nation's House,” he said. “We've all seen the disturbing headlines about sex offenders and crimes against children. These crimes cannot persist. Protecting our children from Internet predators and child exploitation enterprises are just as high a priority as securing our border from terrorists.”
The biography of the former speaker at the website of Wheaton College's Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy states that during his three terms in the Illinois Legislature, Hastert "spearheaded legislation on child abuse prevention." During his 20-year congressional career, Hastert supported legislative initiatives to deter and punish sexual abuse of minors, including the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Amendments of 1996, the Child Abuse Prevention and Enforcement Act of 2000 and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.
In his press release touting the last initiative, Hastert specifically touted its provisions “improving sex offender registration and notification programs, enhancing law enforcement resources, preventing child exploitation, stopping child pornography and creating new criminal offense penalties protecting children from the Internet.”
Among the members of Congress who publicly thanked Hastert for championing the bill was Florida Republican Mark Foley. Only months later, Foley’s sexually suggestive text messages to underage congressional male pages would become a scandal for Hastert, who some say ignored the situation and did not take fast enough disciplinary action.
In that sordid affair, some congressional Republicans suggested that Hastert did not adequately respond to concerns -- long raised privately -- about Foley’s behavior. A former Foley aide said that long before the allegations became public, he alerted “senior staff at the highest level of the House of Representatives asking them to intervene,” but Hastert’s office did not respond. Hastert denied that accusation, but later acknowledged that his office had been contacted about the matter a year before it became a public scandal.
House Majority Leader (now Speaker) John Boehner, R-Ohio, also said he told Hastert about the allegations earlier in the year (Boehner quickly retracted his own statement). Hastert was forced to answer ethics committee questions, and was criticized by then-Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., over his handling of the matter. The conservative Washington Times called for Hastert to resign.
Hastert did find one high-profile backer during the scandal: President George W. Bush. In comments to reporters, Bush declared: "I know that he wants all the facts to come out and he wants to ensure that these children up there on Capitol Hill are protected. I'm confident he will provide whatever leadership he can to law enforcement in this investigation."
On Friday evening Speaker Boehner released a statement saying, "The Denny I served with worked hard on behalf of his constituents and the country. I'm shocked and saddened to learn of these reports."