Remembering Dennis Hastert

Dennis HastertToday, Dennis Hastert, the former Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (1999-2007) and lobbyist appears in U.S. federal court for arraignment (enter a plea of guilty or not guilty) on charges that he broke federal law by withdrawing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and lying about the use of the money when questioned by the FBI.

The indictment alleges that Hastert “agreed to provide known as  individual A $3.5 million in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.” Simply stated, Hastert allegedly paid hush money to conceal claims that he sexually molested a student when he was a wrestling coach in a high school some 50 miles southwest of Chicago.

Hastert is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Back in 2006, I had the displeasure of “crossing swords” with Dennis Hastert. It was in the early months of my accidental career as an Ethiopian human rights advocate following the Meles Massacres in the aftermath of the 2005 election. Outraged by the massacre, I had transformed myself from an armchair academic and defense lawyer into a neophyte human rights advocate.

I “signed” up to mobilize and advocate for H.R. 5680 (Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy, and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2006, sponsored by Representative Christopher Smith, D-N.J). Along the way, I crossed paths with Dennis Hastert who had used his Speaker’s privilege to keep that bill from a floor vote.

It was my very first contentious encounter with a high level American policy maker on human rights violations in Ethiopia. I mounted a mass mobilization campaign in Hastert’s (Illinois’s 14th Congressional District) district in late 2006. I gave radio interviews to various local stations in Hastert’s hometown and Chicago Public Radio.

It was my first experience in direct grassroots political mobilization. This was how I described it at the time:

… We did not take it lying down. We went directly to Hastert’s constituents and made our case. They listened to us, and in less than a week we were able to enlist the support of local evangelical, civic and media leaders. The heat was on! Hundreds of telephone calls poured into Hastert’s Hill office from the 14th Congressional district. His staffers were amazed, but not amused, by the ferocity of our grassroots efforts.

Hastert heard us loud and clear but he did not listen to us.

Despite our best efforts, we did not succeed in getting him to relent and let the bill come for floor consideration. The fact of the matter was that we simply could not compete with the late Meles Zenawi’s $50,000-per-month lobbyist. (Let me say in passing that not long after crossing swords with Hastert over H.R. 5680, I locked horns with Meles’ lobbyists at DLA Piper. DLA Piper would not take my challenge.)

I re-post my “Open Letter” here for four reasons. First, I “cut my teeth” in Ethiopian human rights advocacy by mobilizing and coordinating support for H.R. 5680.  A substantial part of my initial efforts in Ethiopian human rights advocacy had to do with mobilization of support for  H.R. 5680, particularly mobilizing Hastert’s constituents to pressure Hastert to support that bill. Second, I learned a great deal about human rights advocacy with the American public from my mobilization efforts in Hastert’s district. Third, Hastert’s troubles brought home to me the fact that I have been in the trenches of Ethiopian human rights advocacy for nine years and still going strong. Most importantly, I re-post the “Letter” with the the hope the younger generation of Ethiopians will read it and appreciate what we all tried to do in mobilizing for and advocating passage of a human rights bill in the U.S. Congress. 

It gives me no pleasure to see Dennis Hastert haled into court to answer the vilest of all criminal offenses known to civilization. But his circumstances prove to me that in the end even the most mighty and powerful have feet of clay.

As I reflect back on Dennis Hastert and what he did and did not do to H.R. 5680, I am reminded of a sermon given by the abolitionist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker a decade before the American Civil War.  “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

I believe the arc of justice shall bend towards justice for the untold number of victims of Ethiopian human rights abuses.

I also trust the arc of justice shall become a dragnet for predators who abuse the human rights of the most vulnerable members of society.

[The original post of the “Letter” is available HERE.]