Today, in a federal court in Illinois, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert confessed for the first time to sexually abusing high school students in the 1970s, when he worked as a teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville, Illinois. The extent of the related charges (for which Hastert received a 15-month prison sentence), the sum of money—$1.7 million—Hastert paid to silence one of his accusers, and the length of time all of his deeds remained hidden made it all but inevitable that third parties knew about what happened, yet said or did nothing. But who?
This question carries particular force given today’s revelation that one of Hastert’s alleged victims is the brother of a former Illinois State Representative named Tom Cross, who was once considered one of Hastert’s proteges. It’s unclear when Cross became aware of the allegations concerning his brother. He did, however, decline to respond to Hastert’s request for a pre-sentencing character reference. Citing unnamed sources, the Chicago Tribune reported today that Cross was aware of the allegation when he received the request, earlier this year.
A full account of people who were aware of Hastert’s crimes, and to what degree, will likely remain unknown. It’s not true, however, that Hastert’s abuse was so successfully obscured—by either the aura of his reputation or the money with which he paid off his victims—that nobody else knew about it. Indeed, there are several people and institutions, including a few in the journalism industry, whose awareness of Hastert’s crimes, or at least the existence of the allegations, is a matter of public record. Here’s what we know about who knew, and when.
1. Congressman Mel Watt — According to Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein, Watt, a Democrat from North Carolina, became aware of the allegations against Hastert in or around the year 2000. Following Stein’s report, which relied on an unnamed source and was published in June 2015, Watt confirmed his knowledge in a statement to the website: “Over 15 years ago I heard an unseemly rumor from someone who, contrary to what has been reported, was not an intermediary or advocate for the alleged victim’s family. ... I had no direct knowledge of any abuse by former Speaker Hastert and, therefore, took no action.” Watt refused to tell the Huffington Post who, exactly, told him about Hastert.
2. The Associated Press — In a statement provided to the Washington Post last year, a spokesman for the Associated Press confirmed that the news agency had become aware of the allegations against Hastert in 2006, after an unnamed source directed the agency’s attention to a woman named Jolene Burdge, whose brother, Steve Reinboldt, had been abused by Hastert in high school. “As a scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley was unfolding in 2006, a person with no firsthand knowledge pointed The Associated Press to Jolene Burdge,” the spokesman, Paul Colford, told Post reporter Erik Wemple. “On the phone and by email she repeatedly declined to talk about Dennis Hastert and provided no information that would have allowed AP to pursue a story, despite AP’s further efforts to do so at the time.”
3. ABC News — In a June 5, 2015 appearance on Good Morning America, the investigative reporter Brian Ross explained that Burdge, the aforementioned sister of one of Hastert’s victims, had approached the network in 2006: “She contacted us and other members of the news media about nine years ago off the record.” When ABC News reached out to Hastert, furthermore, he denied the charges. As Wemple pointed out at the time, the combination of Burdge’s unwillingness to go on the record and Hastert’s on-the-record denial “made it an impossible story to air.”
4. An unnamed “news organization” and unnamed “advocacy groups” — In an article accompanying ABC News’ 2015 interview with Jolene Burdge, reporters Brian Ross, Rhonda Schwartz, and John Capell noted that, following her brother’s death in 1995, Burdge “tried to expose Hastert, even writing to ABC News and another news organization as well as some advocacy groups in 2006 after another congressman, Rep. Mark Foley, was discovered having sexually explicit message exchanges with an underage male page.” Neither the article nor the original broadcast named the other news organization or advocacy groups that Burdge wrote to, and it’s unclear if Burdge identified them to ABC News. (We’ve reached out to both ABC News and Burdge and will update this post if we hear back. If you happen to know who else Burdge reached out to, send us an email.)
Given the amount of attention paid to Hastert’s sentencing, it’s possible that this list will lengthen. If you know about anyone else who knew about the abuse allegations against Hastert before 2015, please get in touch.