Former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert may have lost his Capitol portrait after pleading guilty to a felony, but he still gets to keep his pension — estimated at more than $70,000 per year.
The Illinois Republican pleaded guilty on Oct. 28 to evading banking reporting rules as part of a hush-money case to cover up prior misconduct, which reports linked to sexual abuse. Less than one week later, his portrait vanished from the Speaker's Lobby and is now nowhere to be found. But despite losing that place of prominence in the Capitol, the former speaker can still collect his congressional pension. According to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report , a lawmaker who is convicted of one or more of a litany of felonies can be forced to forfeit his or her pension. But that forfeiture only applies to crimes committed while in office.
Since Hastert's participation in the hush-money scheme allegedly occurred between 2010 and 2014, after he left office in 2007, those provisions do not apply to his conviction.
"He’s not going to lose his pension because the crimes that he has plead guilty to, was convicted of, in that sense were not related to his official duties,” Craig Holman, a lobbyist with Public Citizen, said in a Wednesday phone interview. "The main reason is the crime occurred after he left office.”
Holman helped draft a 2007 law, known as the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, that dictates some of the regulations pertaining to federal pension forfeiture.
Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union, who has studied and testified about federal pensions before Congress, also said Hastert could keep his pension.
“The more I look at the statutes that were enacted in 2007 and 2012 regarding forfeiture of pensions and lawmakers, it just seems that there’s nothing that could deprive Speaker Hastert of his pension in the plea,” Sepp said in a Tuesday phone interview.
As The Chicago Tribune reported , Sepp's group calculated the estimated worth of Hastert's congressional pension, using the retirement formula that incorporates years of service and salary. It found his pension is potentially worth more than $73,000.
Sepp and Holman differ on whether Hastert would have lost his pension if he committed the crime while he was still in office.
Hastert pleaded guilty to one count of evading bank reporting rules, admitting to withdrawing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in various increments, so he would not have to report the withdrawals. The money was allegedly sent to "Individual A" to cover up Hastert's "past misconduct."
Sepp said it is not clear whether this crime falls into one of the 31 felonies that would cause a member to lose his or her pension, but he didn't think it would qualify. Holman, on the other hand, said if this crime occurred in office, one could argue the cover-up was also done to preserve Hastert's federal position, and thus would be related to his official duties.
But both agreed that the pension laws, in addition to avoiding a lengthy court battle, could incentivize lawmakers to accept a guilty plea with a lesser charge.
"When you think about it, there are almost incentives in the law now for members of Congress to accept a plea deal to keep their pension,” Sepp said.
Though Hastert can keep his pension, his case is ongoing. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for the end of February, where he faces maximum penalties of five years in prison, $250,000 in fines, or three years of court supervision.
Hannah Hess contributed to this report.
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