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Sweet Column: Hastert should have revealed secret land trust

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House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) last year made about $2 million in real estate deals on parcels near his Plano home in booming Kendall County and could profit from additional land sales in the future.


But Hastert did not take the extra steps called for in the House Ethics Manual and volunteer that he held land in a secret land trust called "Little Rock Trust #225.''

He disclosed the transactions on the annual personal financial statements members of Congress are required to file. The statements were made public June 14. (View the documents for all members of Congress at www.tray.com)

Two central questions were raised by a new watchdog group, the Sunlight Foundation (www.sun lightfoundation.com), which is digging into the Hastert transactions:

1. Did Hastert's $207 million federal money "earmark'' for construction of the proposed Prairie Parkway last year bolster the values of his land?

The explosive growth of the area, and the role the Prairie Parkway may play, is a major local issue. It -- including Hastert's land sales -- is the subject of an in-depth series that just ran in the Beacon News, a member of the Sun-Times News Group (www.suburbanchicagonews.com).

One of Hastert's two partners in the Little Rock Trust #225 is Dallas Ingemunson, the Kendall County GOP chairman who is Hastert's political godfather. He said they are investors cashing in on an already skyrocketing market.

Ingemunson, who discussed the transactions with my Sun-Times colleague Eric Herman for our news story last week, said the trust is named after Little Rock Road in Plano, which borders the land. We figured out that Hastert could make some $2 million based on information from Ingemunson and land records dug up by Sunlight investigator Bill Allison, a professional researcher and former staffer at the Center for Public Integrity.

The Hastert land in question was purchased -- in December 2005 -- by Art Zwemke, the principle of the Robert Arthur Land Co. He plans to transform it into a 1,700-unit residential mixed-used development called "North Country.'' President Bush signed the transportation bill with the parkway funding in August 2005 -- with Hastert by his side at a Kendall County ceremony.

But the terms, Zwemke told me, were set in a 2004 contract picked up by Zwemke when the original developer quit the project. "We would have bought the property whether there was a Prairie Parkway or not,'' Zwemke said.

2. Should Hastert have revealed on his annual disclosure that some of his real estate was owned in a secret land trust named "Little Rock Trust #225?''

Yes.

Holding back that information -- and I am not making any conclusion or inference about motive here, it may have been an oversight rather than a calculated decision -- has the practical impact of making it much more difficult for anyone but professional researchers or amateur sleuths to make sense of the disclosure statement.

"We've been extremely transparent,'' Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean told me. Bonjean stressed that holding land in secret land trusts is common in Illinois; I agree, it is.

Each year members of Congress are required to fill out a financial disclosure statement. The form is seriously flawed, designed to give a complicated wide-angle view of earned income, assets, liabilities and holdings rather than a simple specific snapshot.

The disclosure exercise, according to the House Ethics Manual (www.house.gov/ethics/ethic schap4.html) is "intended to provide the information necessary to allow Members' constituencies to judge their official conduct in light of possible financial conflicts with private holdings. Review of a Member's financial conduct occurs in the context of the political process.'' Furthermore, disclosures are supposed to "inform the public about the financial interests of government officials in order to increase public confidence in the integrity of government and to deter potential conflicts of interest.''

Here are some examples of how Hastert described on his statement his sale of 69 acres adjacent to his home: "Home/Property (less 69 acres sold) with a value of the asset between $1 million and $5 million.''

The purchase of 125.96 acres in another part of Kendall County (an acquisition of like farmland, which allows a break on capital gain taxes) is described only as "1/3 share of 125.96 acres in Kendall County'' valued between $1 million and $5 million.

These type of descriptions ignore instructions for specificity in the House Ethics Manual: "The identity of the property, in addition to its category of value, must be specified. Disclosure of real property should include a description sufficient to permit its identification (e.g., street address or plat and map location).''

I have nothing against putting property into secret land trusts. I just think the public should be let in on the secret.


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7 Comments

Your two questions regarding Mr. Hastert's $2 million secret land deal hit the nail on the head.

It strikes me as the height of hypocracy that so many of the GOP leaders who fritter away Americans' privacy under the banner of "If You've Done Nothing Wrong, Then You Have Nothing To Hide" have so much to hide when it comes to their own finances.

Lynn, I noticed one thing! why is it you haven't written one thing negative about Rham? Why dont you try to be atleast 90-10 democratic to republican instead of 100% democratic? Please explain. Afraid of getting kicked out of Rhams' clique, dont fret he isnt really that good.

Lynn Hastert was caught by us veterans in a letter he wrote to the papers with lies about his voting record on veterans issues.He has failing grades from every major VSO and lied about it.So his coving up on his land deal is no big news to us. He lies to his district and now Republican in the 14th are walking away from him. There is a young veteran running against him who has it all his name is John Leasch --- www.john06.com

Vito its the Republicans who are the ones using tax payer money!Hastert is caught that it .Rham uses taxpayer money Lynn will go after him

The ironic thing about this story is that the locals (who are the only ones Hastert really needs to worry about if this is "legal") are seemingly not too bothered by it. If it's true that Hastert benefited by promoting a freeway more than 5 miles from the nearest access point, he has enriched a good portion of the land owners in Kendall County as well. The county is only 18 miles square and every point is within fairly easy reach of the proposed route.

One of the local municipalities pro-development mayor told me this story is the best thing to happen to his town in years. As the story draws national attention, developers from every corner of the US are calling to find out what is happening in Kendall County, in hopes that they can make the kind of profits that many of the county's landowners are now reaping.

And the critics who bring out the Republican angle fail to mention Obama's and Durbin's votes for this project, and Blagojevich's IDOT that is fast tracking it. Fact is, this is all part of a bipartisan combine that brought home the bacon for IL, and they are all scratching each other's backs.

I've read that people in the area think it is ALREADY being developped too quickly. Imagine what will happen when Hastert gets his Prairie Parkway. It's one thing for Hastert to push the new highway because he thinks it's the right thing for the district. But now how can anyone be sure he isn't pushing it just so that he can make a gigantic profit on the deal? As Dale Peters notes above, voters in IL-14 have an alternative in John Laesch. 12 years ago, a Speaker of the House lost his seat in an election. It can and should happen again.
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I thought we already paid the Speaker over $200,000 a year (plus VERY generous benefits) to do the People's business.

Why is he engaged in land speculation in the first place? Would he be doing this if he was still just a high school wrestling coach?

If he wants to be a land speculator, he should leave Congress and go into the private sector.

The farmers in the area should be pretty upset that the Speaker of the House is in the market buying up the ever shrinking amount of farm land, and doing it with better information than anyone else has.

How does Hastert justify taking care of himself like this when our military is fighting over in Iraq? When his own Republican caucus cares little about even discussing the minimum wage?

All poor people should just buy Kendall County farm land. According to Hastert, it's a guaranteed sure thing and there's no special information that makes any difference.

I'm very, very disappointed in our Speaker of the House. I'm actually a Republican, but I just get more and more embarrassed by our leaders here and in D.C.

A little housecleaning in November wouldn't be such a bad thing for the GOP. Like the Democrats did after being in power too long, the Republicans have gotten arrogant, greedy, fat and lazy.

If you lose the people's trust, you've got nothing.

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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 22, 2006 5:32 AM.

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