DeLay was already radioactive when the speakership became vacant after the dominoes of Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston fell in 1999, but he quickly moved to install his deputy in the post. Republicans at that point were desperate—in the throes of impeaching Bill Clinton, they needed to get the spotlight off their own peccadilloes and hypocrisy. Hastert was immediately embraced by House Republicans, not because he was widely seen as a leader and speaker material, but in large part because he was seen as clean and inoffensive.
He Was Ethically Obtuse
Hastert’s tenure as speaker was marked by a series of scandals. But during a time when both parties were generally happy to avoid major showdowns, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct tended to work in a bipartisan way to downplay transgressions. When Hastert mentor DeLay ran into problems, Hastert tried to bottle them up; when they became so pronounced and repeated that they could not be swept away, the ethics committee set up a subcommittee and did its duty, recommending a series of reprimands for DeLay in 2004. Hastert’s response was to fire the committee chair, Republican conservative Joel Hefley of Colorado, along with two Republicans on the subcommittee, Kenny Hulshof of Missouri and Steve LaTourette of Ohio, replacing them with loyalists—and the next year seeking rules changes to make it harder to admonish his colleagues. Hastert also acted after three Texas associates of DeLay were indicted—by enacting a rule that would enable DeLay to stay as majority leader if he were indicted.
The DeLay scandals included a subsequent indictment that ultimately forced his resignation, and culminated with the indictments, in the Jack Abramoff scandal, of some of his closest longtime aides. This was followed by the case of Republican Representative Mark Foley of Florida, who had engaged in a series of inappropriate exchanges with young male pages in the House. Repeated warnings of inappropriate actions made to the speaker’s office were ignored or rebuffed until the scandal exploded into public view, a serious embarrassment for the House and the speaker.
Hastert Enriched Himself in Congress in Ethically Challenged Ways
The cases above involved other lawmakers. Recent news stories have suggested that Hastert’s own behavior in Congress was squeaky clean. Former Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, who was one of the savviest and most constructive lawmakers during his dozen years in the House and was an ally of Hastert, described him to The Washington Post as a “pillar of integrity,” and added, "From everything I can tell, that's the way he conducted himself in office.” Davis told Politico that Hastert’s reputation as speaker was “beyond reproach.”
Not so. As the Sunlight Foundation uncovered in 2006, and as longtime House staffer Scott Lilly and I wrote in detail, Hastert manipulated a series of complex land transactions in his home state of Illinois, in concert with wealthy patrons, to take his net worth from a negligible amount to many millions of dollars while he was serving as Speaker of the House—buying land at a low price while his associates purchased adjacent land at a much higher price, then merging the parcels and creating a trust that gave Hastert an inflated share. Hastert then used his clout as speaker to jam through a stalled transportation bill to which he attached an earmark to fund a highway interchange unwanted by the Illinois Department of Transportation and local residents that was a mile from his land. The earmark caused the land to skyrocket in value, and a portion was sold to a developer that resulted in a $3 million-plus payoff to the newly rich Speaker of the House, a 500 percent profit. Hastert retained his share in the remainder of the land—his net worth when he left office was estimated at between $4 and $17 million. While much of the value was in land, he had also netted a huge pile of cash. No ethics actions were taken against Hastert—which says more about the ethics process than it does about the individual—but by any reasonable standard this was dodgy behavior.