Banking

Dennis Hastert Notwithstanding, the Structuring Law Is Unjust

Even people who have committed no other crime can go to jail for trying to maintain their financial privacy.

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Federal prosecutors think former House Speaker Dennis Hastert should go to jail—ostensibly for trying to avoid federal financial surveillance but really because of the sexual abuse he allegedly inflicted on several members of the high school wrestling team he coached in Yorkville, Illinois, before getting into politics. Since the statute of limitations on those offenses has expired, the only feasible charge is "structuring," a crime that Hastert admits he committed by keeping his bank withdrawals below $10,000, the threshold for reporting transactions to the feds. He used the cash to pay off a victim of his abuse, identified in the government's sentencing memo as "Individual A."

According to the memo, Hastert massaged the uncovered groin of Individual A, then 14, during a wrestling trip. Although Hastert claimed to be helping the boy with a groin pull, "It became clear to Individual A that defendant was not touching him in a therapeutic manner to address a wrestling injury but was touching him in an inappropriate sexual way." Later Hastert, wearing only his underwear, asked Individual A to give him a back massage, which he did. Individual A confronted Hastert about the incident around 2010, demanding $3.5 million in compensation, which is how Hastert ended up withdrawing the large sums that attracted the attention of federal investigators.

Hastert told the FBI that Individual A was extorting money from him based on a false claim of abuse, and the government investigated that allegation by having Hastert record two conversations with Individual A during which they discussed the payments. Because Individual A did not make any threats during those conversations, the government rejected the extortion claim, a decision that looks legally dubious. As the memo emphasizes, Hastert was paying Individual A, who ultimately received $1.7 million of the promised $3.5 million, to keep their encounter a secret, fearing that other victims would come forward once Individual A made the incident public. Individual A's receipt of hush money certainly seems to meet the terms of the federal blackmail statute. Although it is understandable that federal investigators decided not to pursue that charge once they became convinced that Individual A's claim of abuse was true, it is disingenuous to pretend Hastert was not blackmailed.

If Hastert's secret had been his sexual orientation rather than his grave misconduct as a high school wrestling coach, the person demanding payoffs probably would have been charged with a crime, and the government probably would not be trying to lock Hastert up. "With this case," the memo says, "the government seeks to hold defendant accountable for the crimes he committed that can still be prosecuted: defendant's structuring of cash withdrawals and his lies to the government about that activity. But those crimes, while recent, have their origin in the defendant's past. The actions at the core of this case took place not on the defendant's national public stage but in his private one-on-one encounters in an empty locker room and a motel room with minors that violated the special trust between those young boys and their coach."

The government argues that "all aspects of defendant's conduct relating to the structuring activity, of which the sexual abuse is a core component," should be considered in imposing a sentence. But federal sentencing guidelines recommend a prison term no longer than six months for Hastert, which is considerably lighter than the penalty he could have faced if he had been convicted of sexually abusing Individual A and other members of the wrestling team. 

Although Hastert got off lightly in that sense, the crime for which he is officially being punished should not be a crime at all. Again, imagine that someone was threatening to reveal not that Hastert had sexually abused high school students but simply that he was gay. He might then have engaged in exactly the same conduct—big withdrawals, then smaller ones after bank employees started asking about them—that prompted the structuring charge in this case. Likewise if he had withdrawn money for other sensitive or embarrassing but entirely legal reasons: The pattern of withdrawals would still count as a crime under federal law, as the pamphlets that Hastert's bank gave him explained.

When bank employees, who are required by federal law to keep an eye out for "suspicious activity," started asking Hastert why he was withdrawing so much cash, his initial reaction was that it was none of their business. Although it is hard to sympathize with that reaction in this context, such an attitude is perfectly understandable and justified in the case of innocent, law-abiding people who resent having the government look over their shoulders, checking to see if their transactions are suspiciously large or suspiciously small. When people are suspected of trying to maintain their privacy by staying below the $10,000 reporting threshold, the government can confiscate their life savings or send them to prison, even if they have committed no other crime. These injustices should not be obscured by the fact that the structuring law gave the feds a charge to pin on Dennis Hastert. 

NEXT: Brickbat: Who Are You Going to Believe?

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  1. Well argued.

    This is the danger of the whole “two felonies a day” over-criminalization problem. They found Hastert icky. Or perhaps they enjoy bringing a formerly powerful politician low. Or maybe they are Democrats with an ax to grind. So they dug around until they found something they could charge him with.

    As argued in the article, that the person actually happens to be icky in this case isn’t all that important. We’ve abandoned the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard and replaced it with “don’t worry, we’ll find something to pin on him.” And don’t let the fact that we are talking about abuse of minors distract you from the fact that this could be you. Maybe you don’t work with youth, so you aren’t worried about this one. But maybe you have an ugly divorce in your future. What kind of unprovable allegations might fly around? Or maybe you’ll end up in a feud with a nasty neighbor who makes your life hell for a while.

    There’s any number of reasons you might come under a prosecutor’s microscope. Do you really want to trust solely in his judgement? Because given enough motivation, any prosecutor could put you in Hastert’s position.

    1. That is the whole point.

      “There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”

      1. Exactly! Its the perfect law: take out more than 10k, the feds investigate you. Take out less than 10k, the feds investigate you.

        WIN FUCKING WIN!!!! Everyone is GUILTY!! Liberals LUUUUUUURRRRRRVVVE “laws” like this…

        1. There is no innocence, only degrees of guilt.

          1. It’s “There is no such thing as innocence, only degrees of guilt.”

            For getting it wrong, you are guilty of petty heresey and sentenced to death by pyration.

  2. The Drug War is working.

  3. “helping the boy with a groin pull”

    Good lord, will these euphemisms never end?

    1. I keep hoping the commentariat grows bored with this tired meme.

      1. Me too but it seems they just can’t resist flogging it for everything it’s worth.

        1. The writer certainly pulled a boner with his choice of words, but his point is still valid.

      2. Driving you nuts, huh?

        1. Droll and unfunny.

          You get an E.

          1. I’ve just become blind to it.

  4. They’ll only use structuring laws to go after pedophiles whose crimes are too far in the past to prosecute. Also against drug dealers. And sometimes small business owners who run afoul of prosecutors. Oh, and the occasional entrepreneur. And you, if they feel like it.

  5. Spot the Not: translated scientific names

    1. potato buffalo flamingo

    2. the creature from the black lagoon

    3. giant deformed penis

    4. little chief nipple twister

    5. itty bitty thing

    6. Owen’s ninja turtle

      1. Also, are you not going to be here for the lynx or something?

    1. Imma go 2….

      1. Also, where are posted?

        1. Alas….Where have *you* been posted by the army, Derp?

    2. I’ve seen #3 in flower, so not that one.

      1. I’m going with 6.

  6. Ban high school wrestling.

      1. It is the third most boring “sport” after baseball and soccer that routinely crops up.

    1. Ban compulsory education.

  7. The essence of the case is that this guy is going to go to jail for taking his own money out of his own bank account. Regardless of what he did before, or what he did with the money after, the “crime” is that he withdrew money in a manner that the government doesn’t like.
    What a great country we live in.

  8. such an attitude is perfectly understandable and justified in the case of innocent, law-abiding people who resent having the government look over their shoulders, checking to see if their transactions are suspiciously large or suspiciously small.

    “Oh, very well. We’ll include ‘suspiciously medium’, too.”

  9. “structuring,” a crime … by keeping his bank withdrawals below $10,000

    So, let me get this straight. If you *deposit* a check below $10,000, the check writer is guilty of “structuring”, right? RIGHT?!

  10. Poor Denny is being railroaded for the crime of acting suspiciously, which if applied rigorously would get us all locked up. Still, he was Speaker when the House impeached Bill Clinton for lying about a consensual affair with an adult. Kismet, anyone?

    1. Unsympathetic defendants make for bad decisions, and this guy is kind of slimy. That makes him a perfect wedge for a statist to expand power through expanded law.

    2. Bill inton was lying about evidence in a sexual harassment case, which was relevant because of a law he helped impose on the country. Hoist on his petard as it were.

      1. Hoist on his petard as it were.

        Please, enough with the “abstract reference” meme, already.

  11. What is really going on here is the huge increase in the number of laws is causing everyone to be guilty of something and as a result destroying the right to demand proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Whatever the truth about Hassert molesting his high school wrestlers, the government can’t prove those charges beyond a reasonable doubt in court. If they could, they would have charged and convicted Hassert for that. So instead, they find something he is guilty of and charge him with that. Had Hassert never caught the attention of the FBI by having people accusing him of sodomizing young boys, he never would have been charged with this “crime”.

    Basically, these sorts of laws allow the government to convict someone they think is guilty but can’t prove the charge of something. The same thing happened to Martha Stewart and Scooter Libby. In both cases, the government couldn’t prove the underlying conduct that brought the defendant to the prosecutor’s attention. So, they just charged each with “lying to the FBI” about a charge the government couldn’t prove. Here, they couldn’t get Hassert for lying, so they get him on some made up money laundering charge. It ought to outrage anyone paying attention.

    1. It ought to outrage anyone paying attention.

      It won’t. I suspect that a super-majority of the public looks at this as “good work by prosecutors”. They found a way to get the bad man. The whole point of a constitutional republic is to keep democracy from tyranny. The mob does not care about process, the rule of law, fairness, or other people’s rights. The mob wants what it wants when it wants it, and to hell with the consequences.

      1. You are right. God forbid it ever occur to anyone that Hassert might be innocent or that even if he is guilty he shouldn’t be punished without proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

    2. It ought to outrage anyone paying attention.

      It ought to. But it won’t. People too often don’t pay much attention beyond the immediate. Martha Stewart was immediately in front of people right after the tech bubble collapsed. She had a reputation as a mean person and everyone was chomping at the bit to extract their pound of flesh for losing their money in the stock market. Scooter Libby was immediately in front of us when the Iraq War started to go south. And what’s immediately in front of us? A sanctimonious Republican who was probably diddling little boys.

    3. Law enforcement paints these people as “bad guys who will snatch your kids”. Haven’t you seen police chiefs and DAs saying “would you like a pot smoking person in your neighborhood ?”. Normal people do not realize this tyranny.

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  13. I read a up a few things about IRS after coming to this country and only one word flashed to my mind. IRS is nothing but “tax terrorism”.

  14. WTH is subject ‘A’ not being charged with blackmail? Statute of limitations? Limited statutes?–insert Nelson Muntz voice– HA-ha!

    “The essence of the case is that this guy is going to go to jail for taking his own money out of his own bank account. Regardless of what he did before, or what he did with the money after, the “crime” is that he withdrew money in a manner that the government doesn’t like.
    What a great country we live in”

    Nailed it. It’s almost akin to prior restraint of the 1A: you *might* do, or have done something BAD with $9.90k + in cash in your wrestling singlet when you walk out of a bank, so, QED; federal crime.

    And the corollary with 2A: you *might* be fixin’ to shoot up a Mall with that stylish AR-15 w/ it’s Uber-deadly clips and shoulder thing that goes up, not teach a person to shoot paper, as you ‘claim’. So – limit that and be suspicious of that too.

    (Any hints on making paragraph spaces from a damn phone? Sheesh….)

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