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Dennis Hastert and the chain of congressional corruption (+video)

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Khue Bui/AP/File

(Read caption) In this 1999 file photo, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., right, holds a poster which reads "Republicans Have Ended the Raid on Social Security" during a press conference outlining the leaders' plans for dealing with the U.S. budget surplus on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.

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Dennis Hastert has not been a member of Congress since 2007. It’s important to remember that he has not been convicted of any crime. As of now, he has only been indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly structuring bank withdrawals of large sums of cash to evade federal law.

That said, his indictment has created a situation that appears very serious and perhaps dark. Since 2010, the Illinois Republican and former speaker of the House has paid $1.7 million to an unnamed person to “conceal his [Mr. Hastert’s] prior misconduct,” according to the indictment. The indictment document implies, but does not say, that the misconduct in question occurred when Hastert worked as a teacher and wrestling coach prior to winning election to the Illinois General Assembly in 1980.

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Thus it’s possible Hastert may soon enter an unenviable fraternity: national-level lawmakers convicted of crimes. The bad news is that this is not a tiny group. The good news is that in the United States, such bad actors can be brought to account.

“Yes US has corruption. But (1) low compared to worldwide average & (2) corrupt people ... get prosecuted,” tweeted Michael McFaul, former director of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, and US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.

Right now, one of the biggest outstanding cases in this regard involves Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey. Last month, he was indicted on federal corruption charges related to alleged favors done for a friend, Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, in return for cash, luxury vacations, and other largess.

Then there’s former Rep. Michael Grimm (R) of New York, who last December pleaded guilty to federal tax fraud. Mr. Grimm, who once threatened to throw off a balcony a reporter who asked him about his legal problems, resigned his seat in January of this year.

At least 10 US lawmakers have been convicted of felonies since 2000, according to a quick and non-comprehensive review of federal records. While most resigned following their convictions, one – ex-Rep. James Traficant (D) of Ohio – was expelled from the House by a floor vote.

There’s no rule requiring convicted lawmakers to quit or be kicked out, though.

“No express constitutional disability or ‘disqualification’ from Congress exists for the conviction of a crime,” writes Congressional Research Service analyst Jack Maskell in a 2014 report on the subject.

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Ten felonious lawmakers may seem like a lot, especially when combined with the number who quit because of less-serious personal peccadilloes. Remember the case of Rep. Bob Livingston (R) of Louisiana? He was elected speaker following Newt Gingrich’s fall from political grace. Exposed as an adulterer by porn king Larry Flynt, he resigned before actually assuming the speakership. His replacement was a well-liked, low-key member from Illinois, Dennis Hastert.

But considering the hundreds of people who have served in Congress since 2000, the percentage of convicts isn’t that large. In India, by comparison, 30 percent of members of the lower house of Parliament were indicted for some sort of crime in 2013, according to Foreign Policy. Italy and Greece, among European nations, have had serious corruption problems.

As for Hastert’s case, it remains mysterious. Perhaps it’s more compelling for that. The US attorney for the case was preparing an indictment with more explicit details about the circumstances surrounding the allegations, but withheld them at the request of his lawyers, according to BuzzFeed.

The former speaker has quit his lucrative lobbying post. It seems likely more details about the case will become public, given media interest.