This story is from the November 2, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.
The Highway Robber: Dennis Hastert (R-Ill)
Hastert could well be the weakest House speaker in history. Tapped by Tom DeLay to serve as the mild-mannered frontman for the GOP leadership, the former wrestling coach ceded most of his power to the now-disgraced majority leader, allowing Republicans to treat the Capitol as their private piggy bank. Last year, Hastert got in on the action himself, secretly inserting $207 million into the budget for the "Prairie Parkway" – a highway that will speed development of 210 acres he owns in Illinois. Before the year was out, Hastert sold part of his land – soon to be the site of a sprawling subdivision – for a profit of $2 million.
"Here's a guy who saw a chance to profit from his official acts and took it," says Bill Allison, who uncovered the late-night earmark as a senior analyst for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "Most of us aren't speaker of the House, and most of us don't have a $200 million earmark running through our back yard. Hastert does, and he made a fortune from it."
The speaker at least functions as a bipartisan defender of congressional corruption. In February 2005, he purged the chairman of the House Ethics Committee for daring to admonish DeLay. And after Rep. William Jefferson's offices were raided by the FBI last spring, it was Hastert who lodged the strongest protest on the Louisiana Democrat's behalf.
Hastert is especially good at turning a blind eye to scandal: An aide says the speaker's office knew about Rep. Mark Foley's penchant for page boys three years ago, yet Hastert took no action to protect minors working for Congress.
In another secret budget deal, Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist joined forces last December to give the pharmaceutical industry a Christmas gift worth billions. After the "final" version of the defense budget emerged from conference, the duo added a provision that gives drug makers immunity from liability lawsuits – shielding them from claims that their mercury-laden vaccines sparked the current autism epidemic.
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