Speaker Hastert's Land Deal Questioned

House Speaker Dennis Hastert leaves the House Republican Conference meeting on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, May 24, 2006. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke
House Speaker Dennis Hastert denied Thursday that he pushed for federal funding for a proposed highway in northeastern Illinois so he and his wife could reap about $1.8 million from land deals near their home in Kendall County.

The Sunlight Foundation, a newly created group whose declared aim is to inform the public about what members of Congress do, has accused Hastert of not divulging connections between the $207 million earmark he won for a highway, the Prairie Parkway, and an investment he and his wife made in nearby land.

The Foundation says Hastert used an Illinois trust to invest in real estate near the proposed route of the Prairie Parkway, and notes that Hastert's 2005 financial disclosure form, released Thursday, makes no mention of the trust. Hastert lists several real estate transactions in the disclosure, all of which were done by the trust. Kendall County public records show no record of Hastert making the real estate sales he made public today; rather, they were all executed by the trust, the Foundation says.

However, Hastert disclosed the transactions on the annual personal financial statements members of Congress are required to file, the Chicago Sun Times reports.  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," the newspaper says.

In defending himself, Hastert told The Associated Press the land in question was 5.5 miles from the proposed highway.

"So, it has nothing to do with the Prairie Parkway," the Yorkville Republican said. "I owned land and I sold it, like millions of people do every day."

Hastert attorney Randy Evans wrote to the foundation, calling its statements false, libelous and defamatory, and demanding that they be withdrawn and corrected.

Among Evans' criticisms was that the property Hastert purchased is adjacent to Hastert's home and is more than 5.5 miles from the Prairie Parkway corridor.

"This would be like complaining about a purchase in Alexandria, Virginia, based on renovations at the Capitol," in Washington, D.C., he said.

Hastert business partner Dallas Ingemunson, a former Kendall County state's attorney, questioned the use of the 5.5 mile estimate, saying the distance was "probably less than three miles... as the crow flies." But he agreed with Hastert that the Prairie Parkway had nothing to do with their land deals.

As The Washington Post reports, in February 2004, Ingemunson, who was also treasurer of Hastert's campaign committee and chairman of the Kendall County Republican Party, established Little Rock Trust. A week later, through the trust, Hastert and his business partners purchased a 69-acre parcel for $340,000, providing road access to part of Hastert's farm that had been landlocked. Hastert owned a quarter of that parcel.

The approximately 138 acres was bought for about $2.1 million and later sold for almost $5 million, or nearly $3 million more.

The Hasterts were sole owners of one parcel bought in May 2005; Hastert and Ingemunson each had a quarter-interest in the other tract, bought in February 2004, with longtime Hastert friend and supporter Tom Klatt having a half-interest.

Based on Ingemunson's figures, Hastert paid roughly $259,000 for one parcel and later pocketed about $621,000 from its sale; and the speaker paid about $1.03 million for the other parcel and later reaped $2.48 million. Altogether, Hastert turned about $1.3 million in investments into about a $1.8 million profit in less than two years.