Politically motivated prosecutions have been a part of Washington culture since Democrat President Andrew Johnson barely escaped conviction on articles of impeachment brought by the House of Representatives in 1868. Fortunately, he was rightly acquitted by the Senate.
Both Democrats and Republicans have engaged in political prosecutions when they have occupied the executive branch or controlled Congress. It is shameful.
I do not mean that all prosecutions of public officials over the last 100 plus years have been wrongful, illegal, or politically motivated. Many public servants have been guilty of crimes and fairly punished.
However, it seems that in modern America, there is always a high profile Congressman, Senator, or other politician being prosecuted for some alleged crime by his or her political adversaries.
The latest example of this is the case of former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert (R – Illinois).
While the case has been brought in Chicago federal district court, Washington DC likely has a part to play in this prosecution. According to the federal grand jury indictment, Hastert is alleged to have promised to pay a person $3.5 million as compensation for some mysterious sexual misconduct done in the past.
Before Hastert launched his political career, he worked as a high-school wrestling coach. The payments started after he left office, evidently, to purchase silence.
The most questionable aspect of this vague indictment is that the Department of Justice (DOJ) chose to prosecute Hastert only for the financial side of whatever acts he was trying to cover up; not this alleged sexual misconduct.
Cases like this present problems for prosecutors. First, when dealing with politicians who operate in the public eye and exercise a public trust, prosecutors should be diligent and hold them to a high standard.
However, the public has to be cautious about the motivation of the prosecutors, who sometimes seek to make a career by taking down a high-profile public figure or engage in a political prosecution.
Quite frankly, DOJ’s record in prosecuting politicians in recent years has been mixed. The DOJ clearly engaged in misconduct with the prosecutions of the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (R- Alaska) and former Governor Don Siegelman (D- Alabama).
Conversely, the prosecution of Governor Rod Blagojevich (D- Illinois) show that the DOJ can and often do exactly what they should be doing; seeking justice.
Dennis Hastert now faces serious criminal charges in a federal court.
Is this a political prosecution? No one knows yet. However, it certainly has many of the characteristics of historical prosecutions based on political retribution.
Hastert is a conservative, was often at odds with Democrats in the House when he served as Speaker, and made very powerful enemies who now occupy the White House and the DOJ.
Additionally, he cannot possibly be tried by a fair and impartial jury in the Chicago area, faces an uphill battle against the powerful DOJ, has already been “convicted” by much of the public because of irresponsible reporting, and will be tarnished for the remaining years of his life regardless of the outcome of his criminal case.
This is his situation before a single shred of evidence has been admitted in a court proceeding.
I don’t know if he is guilty or not. However, I hope that the DOJ will look at this case at its conclusion and reassess its judgement when charging political figures (and adversaries) with crimes against the people of the United States.
Prosecutions should only be brought when prosecutors believe that they have enough evidence to convince a jury that a defendant is guilty of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Political prosecutions undermine public confidence in the very foundation of the criminal justice system.