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HomeIllinois NewsRobling: The sleazy way the Combine launched Denny Hastert's congressional career

Robling: The sleazy way the Combine launched Denny Hastert’s congressional career




By Chris Robling - 

On a blisteringly hot June afternoon in 1986, Denny Hastert was nominated by a convention of Republican committeemen at the Illinois Math and Science Academy gymnasium to succeed the ill U.S. Rep. John Grotberg.

Hastert, a state representative, lived outside the expansive 14th Congressional district. Just weeks earlier, he was politically unknown beyond a remote corner of the 14th, which overlapped with his legislative district. He had served in Springfield first by appointment to a vacancy, followed by two elections in a Republican district.

Hastert’s elevation began a series of events that culminates Wednesday morning, when U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin will pronounce sentence on the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, head of the legislative branch of our federal government.

In one of his last acts of self-defense, Hastert has provided Judge Durkin with 40 letters of support from friends and fellow former public officials. None address acts now in the public record when he was a wrestling coach and high school teacher.

Since Hastert’s 2015 indictment for financial and related charges over hush money payments to a child sex abuse victim when he coached wrestling in Yorkville some 35 years ago, attention has focused on his victims’ stories and Hastert’s recent behavior that brought federal investigators into his life.

No one has discussed how he became a Congressman. Until now.

Dennis “Denny” Hastert was endorsed for Grotberg’s spot by three key players in the 14th district. Illinois senate Republican leader James “Pate” Philip, in his local capacity as DuPage County GOP chairman, Kane County Republican chairman Jan Carlson and, most importantly, Kendall County State’s Attorney – and GOP chairman – Dallas C. Ingemunson effectively handed Denny the keys to a Congressional career.

And now, not one of those three original key supporters appear as an author of a public letter of support to Judge Durkin.

The politics went like this. The 14th district had been put in play by former Representative Thomas Corcoran’s 1983 decision to challenge U.S. Senator Charles Percy. A five-way race broke out in March 1984 to succeed Corcoran. Then-state senator Grotberg was the establishment candidate, backed by the three GOP chairmen. Grotberg was expected to make short work of the upstart candidates and cap off his career with D.C. service.

Except, an independent conservative challenger, attorney Tom Johnson of West Chicago, gave Grotberg – and his backers – a scare. On election night, Grotberg prevailed by less than two votes per precinct.

Sadly, Congressman Grotberg’s health deteriorated. By his one-year mark in office, well before the 1986 primary in which he was not challenged, Grotberg was essentially resident at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, receiving considerable care and reportedly compos mentis only occasionally.

The three chairman went to work. If Jeanne Grotberg, a lovely lady, acting on the Congressman’s behalf, resigned his place on the ballot prior to 30 days after the primary, election law said another primary would be run. In that primary, the inconveniently popular Johnson might deliver an upset.

On the other hand, postponing Grotberg’s resignation would put the vacancy in the hands not of the voters, but those of the district’s Republican precinct committeemen – many of whom had jobs with the State of Illinois, which were controlled directly or indirectly by the three chairmen and their friends in the Republican administration.

Denny, already known as an amiable and dutiful follower of Springfield orders, was told to get his kit together for a Congressional run. David Axelrod had already landed in Kane County to assist coroner Mary Lou Kearns, who was getting uppity about Grotberg’s record, suburban sprawl and boss politics.

The confluence of a first-time Republican candidate, an appealing countywide Democrat official from the district’s largest county, and the hated Democrat super-consultant gave shivers to Beltway Goppers, who wanted Illinois locals to solve the problem, and did not care how.

Jeanne Grotberg, bearing incalculably greater concerns than suburban Republican politics, held off declaring John’s vacancy.

Thus, in an apposite precursor to this very day’s Trump – GOP dispute, the voters were bypassed. The establishment would decide the next Congressman.

They chose someone about whom the federal government has reported to Judge Durkin, in its sentencing memorandum, “sexual acts against Individual A and other minors”, all apparently high school students in Denny’s charge, just years before the 1986 convention.

“In October 1979, in the midst of high school wrestling season, defendant chose to pursue a public life in politics. Defendant’s sexual abuse of boys on his team occurred before this decision and was still occurring at the time defendant chose to enter public life. Defendant was not just a teacher and coach. Defendant was famous in Yorkville as the beloved coach of the state champion wrestling team; the leader of a boys’ club that took trips to the Grand Canyon and the Bahamas; and the popular teacher who gave kids rides in his Porsche,” the federal government told Judge Durkin, citing David Bernstein’s article, “Small Town, Big Secret,” in the September 2015 edition of Chicago Magazine (Pages 17 and 18, Federal Sentencing Memorandum).

On the day Rod Blagojevich was arrested, John Kass and I appeared together on Milt Rosenberg’s “Extension 720” on WGN-AM. John very graciously credited me with coining the term “Combine” to describe the non-partisan business interests that dominated Illinois government until the outsider Bruce Rauner was elected.

It was the Republican side of the Combine that saw the Grotberg vacancy coming, finessed its declaration, selected a dutiful order-filler and rammed him through in a sweltering Aurora gymnasium. Johnson, disgusted, quit the race before the convention.

Hastert’s lone opponent that day had placed third against Grotberg in 1984. Elgin’s Dr. Dick Verbic stood before Republican committeemen and said, according to the Tribune’s John Schmeltzer, “a Chicago precinct captain would be more at home with what is about to happen here than any Republican ever could be.”

Thus did Denny Hastert enter national politics.

And thus, the question remains – of his three key backers, those now so noticeably absent from his letter-writing public supporters – how well did they know Denny Hastert when they pushed him up the political ladder?

WIND’s Dan Proft wrote in the Chicago Tribune last fall that Denny’s case shows the wages of ‘morally comatose’ Illinois Republicanism.

Interestingly, for Ingemunson, the wages of pushing Denny through a payroller’s convention included financial rewards by representing Metra and others to his hand-picked Member. As Denny moved up the Congressional ladder, business only got better.

Reading the “save-my-skin” letters Hastert delivered to Judge Durkin made me write this. Hastert tried to file them under seal, so we would not know his key backers today. Originally, there were 60. When Judge Durkin rightly insisted they be filed publicly, 20 withdrew. The Combine, except the three who got this whole career started, speaks through those letters.

Denny Hastert’s victims deserve to know how this abuser ended up running a branch of the United States Government. The folks who know aren’t writing letters, and they aren’t talking. Ingemunson dodged the subject when raised by Bernstein in his article. It pains me to say that the rest of the Chicago and Illinois press corps have not been asking.

But no one should attend Wednesday’s sentencing without knowing how the story whose end they will witness, began.

WGN-TV Republican analyst Chris Robling managed Tom Johnson’s 1984 Congressional campaign.


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  1. It all means nothing if the man does not server punishment…..an not a slap on the wrist. If he walks it only put another crack in the foundation of this country. It means a two tier justice system….those who write the laws….and those that are punished by the law, and never the twain shall meet.

  2. Dallas Ingemunsen was notorious in Kendall County politics as early as 1970, he was considered the GOP ‘s Godfather in Kendall for years.
    After Denny left the House, he and Dallas reportedly were partners in a Yorkville office building, in which Denny “rented” an office suite as he was entitled to do at government expense for several years, as a former Speaker of the House.
    I use quotes on “rented,” because as a partner in the building, he would be renting from himself, at our expense.
    Mr. Robling, you forgot to mention the the role of still another player in this, the political “Godfather” of KANE County, Phil Elfstrom, a man so odious in Kane County that to mention his name brings out streams (and screams) of nasty verbiage from long-time residents here.
    As Speaker of the House, it was in Elfstrom’s office building in Batavia that Hastert located his district office, first as Congressman, later as Speaker. I wonder what deals were made to get this done, as well?

  3. Shame:
    The 40 public letters are at the Tribune web site. The 20 that were not made public are known only to Hastert and his attorneys, as far as i have read.
    Elfstrom was surely a force, but i focused on the three chairmen. Dallas was they fulcrum, Denny was from Kendall County. And, Dallas was the top law enforcement officer for Kendall.

  4. The story of how Denny beat Mary Lou Kearns in 1986 is one for the ages. Kearns was poised to win the race…until a question and answer session after a Kearns press conference at Northern Illinois University went very badly.
    A 20 year old college student began asking Kearns questions about morality. Most in the audience looked on not understanding what the boy was getting at. Then he startled everyone when he said “When I was 13 you had me babysit your kids when you went on dates with my married father.” The father later divorced his first wife and then married Kearns. This story damaged Kearns enough for Hastert to narrowly win.
    Go figure…poor morals actually hurt candidates in 1986. Now in 2016 it seems to be a resume enhancement.

  5. Dennis The Menace has other improprieties besides the sexual ones lurking in his shadows that have just never been brought to light. I had a business friend that needed a political favor and Dennis the Menace quietly took care of it for him. It cost the friend a substantial campaign contribution to Denny’s campaign war chest but the deed got done. I do not know if the political favor would still have gotten done (or not) if the businessman had failed to make the large campaign contribution to Dennis. My point is the sexual perversion issue that Hastert got caught on is simply “the tip of the iceberg” so don’t shed any tears for old Denny. I am not going to.

  6. Chris, Jan Carlson may have been Kane GOP Chairman, but Elfstrom pulled all the strings in Kane County. Elfstrom was the power-broker in the Kane County Board and in Kane GOP candidate choices. Both men are originally from Batavia.
    Elfstrom ran Aurora’s Robert Stumm against incumbent State Senator Robert Mitchler in the 1970 primary race. Elfstrom wanted someone in the Springfield Senate seat he could control.
    His fellow Kane County Board member, Stumm, was his choice.
    (Stumm lost, and was treated as “persona non grata” from that day on.)

  7. It is also curious to consider the circuitous route that led to the elevation of Hastert to the position of Speaker of the House: Newt Gingrich resigned after getting pilloried for the House Republicans losing seats while retaining the majority; the presumptive successor, a Congressman from Louisiana, I believe, was shouted down by strident Democrats who exposed him for engaging in an extramarital affair (Representative Maxine Waters was on her worst behavior) and the man promptly resigned from Congress; the next choice was Do Nothing Denny Hastert.
    Interestingly, the Democrats would accuse anyone who demonized President Bill Clinton of engaging in “sexual McCarthyism,” but their antics opened the door for Hastert’s promotion.

  8. Excellent job, Chris.
    A real shame Tom Johnson did not quite make it across the finish line in first place in 1984. He was as intellectually solid/principled as Phil Crane and a far, far more capable and hard-working politician. I worked hard here for his election, in La Salle County
    A footnote: you can probably blame the creation of “The Combine” on former Republican Cook County Sheriff and Governor Dick Ogilvie. He was the person who changed the Republican Party from a “party of the people” into “a party of government”.
    By the time Ogilvie left office almost almost all R County chairmen in the state either had a state or party job or did business with the state, whereas before he was elected the exact opposite was the case. A few of his aides did prison time.
    After he retired, Ogilvie put down about $1 million cash for a luxury condo in Chicago. One of his most loyal and devoted financial supporters asked him, “Dick, you have been on the public payroll most of your life. Where did you get the $1 million?” Ogilvie refused to answer. His friend never spoke to him again.

  9. About 14 years ago, Rep. Mike Oxley of Ohio started hearings on the peculiar activities of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Hastert took jurisdiction from Oxley’s subcommittee.
    Definitely a sleaze.

  10. We have far too many “morally bankrupt” Republicans in Illinois don’t we? Mr. Proft worked for one of the worst, Larry Dominick, who sexually abused women in his employ. After Hastert, I hope Dominick the next repugnant monster to get inducted into the Big House.