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Sweet Column: Hastert on the Hastert Highway.

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'Nothing to it,'' said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, asked about his $2 million windfall from selling land near his Plano home, a few miles from the proposed Prairie Parkway he has championed.

That transaction -- reported last week in the Sun-Times, Tribune, Beacon News and on the Web site of a new political watchdog group -- was a front page story in the Thursday Washington Post, headlined, "Lawmakers' Profits Are Scrutinized."


It's unusual heat for Hastert.

Hastert is walking and talking in the Capitol, not stopping as he takes a few questions. At issue is whether land values in Kendall County became more valuable because of the Prairie Parkway.

"There is no substance to it. I've been working on the Prairie Parkway probably for a good 18 years. That's a matter of record, it is not built. Nothing to it," he said.

Hastert is in the spotlight in part because he used what's called in Washington an "earmark'' to secure $207 million in federal funding for the proposed road.

The money was in a massive transportation bill signed by President Bush last year at a ceremony in Hastert's home Kendall County.

Earmarks are specific projects written into legislation at the last minute, bypassing the committee process, inserted anonymously into bills.

Congress is considering changing the rules regarding earmarks, on economic and ethical grounds.

The earmarking process is controversial for several reasons: on the budget side because the burgeoning use of earmarks is driving up the cost of government.

On the ethics side, earmarks -- and the ability of some powerful lawmakers to virtually write projects into law -- are at the center of the investigation of convicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Hastert, however, has never made a secret of his sponsorship for the Prairie Parkway, the subject of much local debate as Kendall Country wrestles with explosive development.

This earmark was not as sneaky as some because Hastert telegraphed his punch. It was included in a proposed list of Illinois projects in a document put together by former Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.) on Jan. 24, 2003.

At a GOP fund-raiser Monday, Hastert blasted what he called the "unrelenting Democratic media.''

He seems irritated at accusations of personal profit from the "Hastert Highway" and why he did not specifically describe the transactions on his disclosure statement, as required by the House Ethics Manual.

"I listed it the way the disclosure said I should list it, exactly," he said.

Lynn Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

12 Comments

You suggest in Friday's column that Speaker Hastert "telegraphed" his funding support for the Prairie Parkway because it was included in a list by Rep. Lipinski in 2003. Why wasn't the Speaker himself more forthcoming about his support.

Hastert's practice of secrecy, or at least keeping a "low profile," goes back to 2001 when he quietly inserted $15 million into the US Department of Transportation Appropriations Bill for the initial studies on the Prairie Parkway. No announcement from the Speaker about the $15 million for the studies. The funding was not publicized until Citizens Against the Sprawlway discovered the earmark and issued a news release in January 2002. In fact, IDOT engineers were maintaining then hat no funding was available for Prairie Parkway studies.

See: http://www.sprawlway.org/news/beacon011802.html

Of course the Speaker has made no secret of his cheerleading for the project, but none of the draft federal Highway Bills considered by the House or the Senate in 2004 and 2005 included the Prairie Parkway earmarks. Only when the bill went to the secret negotiations of the House-Senate Conference Committee did the Prairie Parkway earmarks miraculously appear. If the Speaker is so public in his support of the Prairie Parkway, why did he wait until the backroom negotiations to insert his earmark.

With the $207 earmark in place, the Prairie Parkway moved from a proposal under study to a federally-funded probability, even certainty. The possibility of the Prairie Parkway had already begun to affect land values in Kendall County, but the funding clearly changed the status of the project and, no doubt, had a corresponding bump in property values.

Hastert's apologists have suggested that the Prairie Parkway is too far from the parcels sold by the Speaker and his co-investors. But being about 3 miles from the proposed Galena Road interchange actually puts the land at a "sweet spot," far enough from the Prairie Parkway to avoid the noise and congestion but close enough for easy access.

Perhaps the timing was just coincidence or maybe Hastert was just a lucky investor, but selling the land a few months after inserting the earmark in the Highway Bill has certainly raised questions in many quarters.

Hastert will now blame you Lynn for being a lib. LOL

It's pretty clear that Hastert's bluster on other matters has made the press gunshy on this issue. His camp has made so many contradictory and ridiculous statements on this. Hastert's getting a pass on this story that smaller fish wouldn't.

OF COURSE it's a problem!

On the one hand he says the road didn't effect the property's value - but at one point they admitted that the farmer who originally sold to Hastert's group was worried about the real estate bubble bursting!! Did Hastert as a buyer have any doubt? Did he give the farmer the same information he had?

Come on!

Hastert's a risk adverse guy. No way he was investing that much unless it was a sure thing. And it was a sure thing because of legislation he was pushing.

And how about when his camp tried to compare this with improvements being done at the Capitol impacting real estate in Virginia? That's preposterous. Why is the press such a lap dog when it comes to Denny Hastert?

It’s not illegal…

Dallas Kendall Country GOP Chairman Dallas Ingemunson is right. His scheme with Denny Hastert and one other person to buy and sell land, capitalizing on Kendall County’s booming economy doesn’t appear to be illegal. Even the Better Government Association seems to agree with Mr. Ingemunson on that point. Mr. Ingemnunson is, after all, a lawyer, well trained in what activities fill the bill when it comes to satisfying the letter of the law. But it’s how this action measures up when complying with the spirit of the law that should concern us.
Back in the day, when he was a teacher, I’m sure Dennis Hastert never used a blind trust instead of his name when signing report cards, or tried to conceal his identity on parent-teacher night. Since becoming speaker of the House of Representatives, he’s been front and center on all sorts of issues. In an election year where principle is going to be an issue as much as policy is, it’s that willingness to stand up and be counted in both word and deed, the letter and spirit of things, if you will, which helps to define leadership, judgement and principle.
The Republican controlled Congress is a mess today, hounded by the specter of scandal. Some of speaker Hastert’s friends and colleagues are either in jail or awaiting trial. Even the speaker’s own activities, and those of his staff, have raised eyebrows. So much of Congress’ work seems to go on behind closed doors or in the dead of night that it’s easy to become cynical about the level of respect elected officials have for the laws (in both letter and spirit) that they create. Therefore, any chance an elected official has to conduct business, either public or private in an open and above board manner, should be looked upon as an opportunity to reassure the public that regardless of whatever they may read about activities in Washington, D.C., back home it’s different.
Sadly, in this case, that may have been too much to hope for.
Mr. Ingemunson and the Better Government Association are correct. The land sale does not appear to be illegal. It just appears to be unseemly.

John Morello

No one can say whether Hastert's deal was illegal or not. We don't have the information to say either way at this point. John, it's completely reckless of you to suggest otherwise. You simply don't know either way.

Oh yeah, Dallas Ingemunson is a lawyer, and we know lawyers never do anything wrong! Good lord, that's the most preposterous thing I've ever heard. And anyone who knows Dallas knows that's what makes this deal even MORE of a concern.

But we can say that the facts are very, very troubling on their face.

Part of this land was flipped in just 4 months for a 140% profit! Did the farmer who originally sold the land have the same info Denny did? Doesn't sound like it. Sounds a lot like insider trading if you ask me.

When will a reporter go back and compare this deal to Edgar's guy, Bob Hickman, who went to prison several years ago for corrupt investments on land related to the tollway. The issue there was inside information.

And if I recall, I think the profit there was only a few hundred thousand dollars.

More investigation is also needed on Denny's role - if any - on picking the Parkway's specific route and ramp locations.

Someone also needs to ask Hastert - when you and Dallas I. were talking to the selling farmer and trying to buy low from him, was there already a done deal with the developer that you guys were going to sell to? Was there really any risk here to Denny and Dallas?

I'm talking about the developer who bought from Denny and Dallas that was a past campaign contributor to the Speaker.

Gee, wouldn't one think that a developer would be pretty darn grateful for a major Parkway being brought in? Might that developer be more willing to buy from the Speaker as a tribute to the guy who was responsible for bringing a huge development engine (the Parkway) in the area? Might that developer exercise some discretion about where his next development was going to go?

People seem to be forgetting there IS a victim here. It's that farmer, presumably elderly, who according to Hastert's own story was worried about the real estate bubble bursting and wanted to sell quick.

Serious questions are raised about whether that selling farmer was deliberately kept in the dark. Certainly looks on the surface, at a minimum, that Hastert and Dallas I. knew with 100% certainty that the bubble wasn't going to burst, at least with respect to that property.

Someone also still needs to explain how this is any different from what Martha Stewart did. Other than Hastert made a much bigger profit.

Oh, forgot to mention. Hastert formally endorsed Dallas Ingemunson's son Boyd for Kendall County State's Attorney in the March Primary.

Check out the photo of Denny and candidate at
http://www.voteboyd.com/

Fortunately, Dallas' spawn was soundly defeated.

Sure, Hastert's endorsement likely had nothing to do with wanting to get his real estate partner's son in as the chief law enforcement officer in the County where the real estate investment is located. Hastert would have done it anyway because Denny and Dallas are like peas and carrots.

I just mention to show how ridiculously backwater and incestuous these people are.

Diane,
Apparently my sarcasm was a bit oblique. I think the deal smells to high heaven as well. My point is that whether the blind trust was or was not legal...and again I repeat the Better Government Association says that, and Lynn Sweet has implied the same, the fact the blind trust was used in the first place should imply something fishy was going on.
Nothing would please me more than to learn that Denny was acting on insider information(the sort of thing only he would know)and that the Attorney General of Illinois or the House Ethics Committee was going to get involved. But until that happens, what you have is a very unseemly behaviour by the speaker. Not illegal, yet. But unseemly.
John Morello

I trying to quash the Hastert lie that the property is 5.5 miles away. I drove out and approimated the distance from the proposed highway to his east property line at 1.7 miles.

I than double-checked by taking a google map of the area and overlaying it on an aerial from the real estate company. Again the distance comes to 1.7

Dan, you're just wrong. You are using legal terms in an improper way.

Just because someone hasn't been charged or arrested at this point doesn't mean something wasn't "illegal." No one knows either way. Not enough facts yet.

It's certainly true that no one has been accused of any criminal wrongdoing. And we can even say we know of no investigation (of course any of us would be the last to know).

But to at this early stage issue a blanket "okay" and declare everything within the law, is simply wrong.

Again, you do not have the facts to say that. And none of us, especially the Better Gov't Association, are prosecutors. Unless you have subpoena power (I don't), stop sounding foolish.

I agree...not enought facts. And until we have those facts I think it's premature to rush to judgement, which I think some of you are doing.
I'm not absolving Hastert of anything. Was the land deal disclosed? yes. Was it done comprehensively? no. Did it lack detail? yes. Could Hastert have prospered from his influence wielding? That's up to either the Attorney General or the House Ethics committee. Even Jonathan Turley, a well respected law professor from George Washington University, and a columnist for the Tribune(sorry Sun Times) says no crime appears to have been committed. I'd like to see this turn into an official investigation with subpoena power (which just like you I don't have) to call witnesses, look at documents and make this a legitimate inquiry. Everything is not 'okay', but so far, nothing is illegal.
John Morello

Tony T,

It's a freeway. Meaning you can't just get on it anywhere in a straight line from the property. The nearest planned exit would be at US 34, which is in fact 5 1/2 miles away from the property. As the crow flies, it's about 2 1/2 miles away. It is a little disingenious for Hastert's spokesman to hint the property itself is 5 1/2 miles away from the road, but for practical purposes, you'd have to drive that far to get on it.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on June 23, 2006 3:51 PM.

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