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George Bush has Karl Rove, Bill Clinton had James Carville and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has Scott Palmer. Call them powers behind the throne, the political gurus who guide their bosses’ careers and, if they’re good, keep them out of trouble.
Palmer, Hastert’s chief of staff, is more than an employee. He’s Hastert’s friend and his roommate in Washington, a living arrangement the Speaker may find difficult to explain in the wake of the Mark Foley Congressional page scandal.
But while some on Capitol Hill see Hastert as a likable, affable buffoon, they see Palmer as a ruthless, arrogant SOB who rides roughshod over anyone who gets in his, Hastert’s or the GOP’s way.
The good-cop, bad-cop relationship is found often in political operations and it lets Palmer take the heat while concealing the fact that Hastert can be just as arrogant and ruthless as his top aide. In fact, both believe a scorched-earth policy is the only answer to running the House of Representatives.
Hastert, however, likes to stay in the background and let others take the heat. He handpicked Tom DeLay to serve as GOP whip and then let DeLay run amuck. When DeLay’s corruption finally caught up with him, Hastert turned to John Boehner, another arrogant, bribe-taking, votes-for-sale Republican to replace him.
But Hastert has never been as clean as his carefully-manufactured image suggests. Whispers about his private life go all the way back to Aurora, Illinois, Hastert’s birthplace, and echo through the statehouse in Springfield. But whenever troubled threatened, Palmer was there to step in and fix the situation.
“Denny has a lot of skeletons in his closet,” says an Illinois GOP strategist. “But Scott has the key to the closet and he keeps it locked. The problem is that there is another closet with Scott’s name on it.”
Palmer, who likes to say he was schooled on politics, received a honorary degree from Aurora University in 2002 and told the graduating class that year to “give back to our university, to our community, and to our country.”
And Hastert has given back to Aurora. Not personally but with taxpayer dollars. Records show the Speaker has “earmarked” some $24 million in pork for the Illinois city. Right after Aurora University granted Palmer an honorary degree, the school got a fat $9.8 million federal grant, engineered by Hastert, for a “teacher training institute.”
Another $5.5 million went to Aurora’s Rush-Copley Medical Center, where one of the trustees is one Scott B. Palmer. Still another $3.4 million went to another Aurora hospital that once employed a member of Hastert’s staff.
All this from a self-declared conservative Republican who campaigned on smaller governments, reduced spending and elimination of pork.
“Denny always talked out of both sides of his mouth,” says Elaine Richland, a former Aurora resident who grew up with Hastert. “He comes across as this good old boy but he’s as dangerous as a snake.”
And about as ethical. In 1992, dozens of members of Congress were caught writing bad checks that the House Bank covered without penalty. Many routinely overdrew their accounts, knowing that the Bank, controlled by the very members who abused it, would not bounce the bad paper. Among those who made widespread use of the practice was J. Dennis Hastert – in his first year in office.
Hastert blamed his problems on then Washington-based chief of staff Peter Vroom and fired him. Palmer, who really ran the office from the district, moved to Washington and took over but insiders in Hastert’s office said Vroom had nothing to do with the checks and the illegal activity was all Hastert with Palmer’s knowledge.
Now Hastert is in the middle of another scandal, the Mark Foley Congressional page debacle, and Capitol Hill watchers wonder if Palmer could become the latest fall guy. Kirk Fordham, Foley’s former chief of staff, says he told Palmer about the Florida congressman’s inappropriate behavior but that neither he, nor anyone else in the speaker’s office, did anything about it.
Palmer says Fordham is lying and Hastert sticks to his claim that he knew nothing about Foley’s behavior even with other witnesses coming forward to collaborate Fordham’s story and new information that shows Republicans knew as far back as 2000.
A common question in political scandals is: “What did you know and when did you know it?”
When it comes to Hastert and his puppet master, Scott Palmer, the more appropriate question is: “What did you know and when did you start trying to cover it up?”