Jolene Burdge does not look at Dennis Hastert and see a man who used to hold one of the most powerful positions in the United States.
“This whole thing of him being the speaker of the House and the third in line to the presidency—I know it’s there, but it’s just not as prominent in my mind as being a teacher from a small town,” she said. “He’s just a teacher that all of us kids had that hurt my brother.”
Burdge told the world last month that Hastert sexually abused her brother, the late Steve Reinboldt, throughout his high school years in Yorkville, Ill., where Hastert was a coach and teacher.
In an interview with ABC News that aired on June 5, the Billings woman finally told a story she’d been carrying since 1979. Other family members and some friends were familiar with the allegations, but as recently as last winter Burdge had given up hope that her story would ever reach a larger audience.
Watching the taped interview with ABC “was gratifying and terrifying at the same time,” she said, but “I feel kind of distanced now. The truth is out, and what’s going to happen is going to happen.”
Except for a short interview with the Associated Press after ABC broke the story, Burdge has not spoken publicly since early June. In an interview last week with Last Best News, she went into more detail about the case, about her family’s troubled history and about what it was like to unburden herself of a story she had despaired of being allowed to tell.
The television interview was shown a week after Hastert was indicted on two charges of illegally structuring financial transactions to evade currency reporting requirements. The indictment said Hastert paid $1.7 million to a person identified only as “Individual A” to “compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against” that person.
Hastert pleaded not guilty to the charges and has not commented on the allegations in the indictment or other reports in the media. ABC News, citing anonymous sources, said Hastert made the payments—part of a planned payoff of $3.5 million—to prevent Individual A from revealing that Hastert had engaged in sexual misconduct as the wrestling coach at Yorkville High.
Hastert served in the House from 1981 to 2007 and was House speaker for eight years, longer than any other Republican ever held that position.
Jolene Burdge has lived in Billings since 1984, when she came here to recover from a bad relationship. She and her daughter, then 2, planned to spend some time with Burdge’s sister Carol and her family for a while, but Burdge soon found a job and never went back to Illinois.
She also met Bill Burdge, a native of Billings. They were wed in 1986 and shortly after moved into a house a few blocks from Rose Park, where they still live. In 2012, Burdge retired from a 26-year career with Montana State University Billings, where she was most recently a grant coordinator. Her husband retired last year after working for 43 years for Hardy Construction.
Burdge, 53, remembers Hastert as “a nice man,” a teacher of history or political science (she forgets which) who was a “savior” to her brother. Burdge said her father was an alcoholic and her mother suffered from mental illnesses. Hastert was a mentor and father figure to Steve, and the portal to a much more exciting world than the one the Reinboldt children were used to.
Hastert coached the wrestling team, for which Steve Reinboldt was the equipment manager, and he was also the leader of the Explorers troop Steve belonged to, Burdge said. Under Hastert’s tutelage, she said, her brother went skydiving, visited the Bahamas and learned how to scuba dive.
“In the small, little closed-up world we lived in,” Burdge said, such things were exotic, unheard-of. When Burdge got to high school—she was the youngest of four children, six years younger than Steve—she assumed Hastert would be her mentor, too. But it was not to be.
“He avoided me, and I never could figure out why. Which struck me as funny because he and Steve were always so close,” she said.
She said she learned why the summer after she graduated from high school in 1979. Steve, who had earned a degree in TV and film but couldn’t settle down, made a rare visit back to Yorkville. She and Steve were going to a bowling alley to watch their older brother, Danny, compete in a bowling tournament. Outside the bowling alley, Steve told his sister he was gay.
Burdge, who said she had long suspected that was the case, asked her brother when he had had his first same-sex experience. She said he told her it had been with Hastert, who continued to abuse him through four years of high school.
Bill Burdge said he heard the story from his wife about the time they married, and he knew of other family and friends who heard the story directly from Steve.
“There were seven or eight people that we know of that he had confided in,” Bill Burdge said. Jolene Burdge said her brother told their sister Carol, but never did confide directly in brother Danny. She said her sister and surviving brother are “very, very private people.”
Reporters hounded both of them after Burdge appeared on television, but neither of them has spoken publicly. Burdge said it’s been especially hard on Danny because he is still in Yorkville, where he had to endure “a firestorm” of media pressure. Carol lives in Denver.
Burdge said she mostly kept the story to herself over the years because she figured it was her brother’s story to tell. And though many people have since questioned why her brother and other alleged victims never reported the abuse, Burdge said she fully understands their reluctance.
“They were 14, 15, 16 years old and this was a powerful father figure and a teacher in a small town, when none of this stuff was talked about,” she said. Her brother also told her he didn’t think anyone would believe his story.
Young people nowadays might be more inclined to report abuse, she said, but “it didn’t work that way in the ’60s and ’70s, and I think people kind of forget that.”
Just as Burdge was one of the first people Steve talked to about his sexuality, she said, she was also the first one he told he was HIV-positive, in January 1989. He visited his sister in Billings twice after that, in 1993 and again in 1995. Not long after his last visit, in August 1995, he died of AIDS.
Hastert showed up at her brother’s funeral, she said, and it was there she confronted him. In what was the most dramatic sequence of her ABC interview, she related how she told Hastert that she knew what he had done to her brother, and that the secret wasn’t going to die with him.
If she had had any doubts before, she said, the confrontation confirmed for her that her brother was telling the truth.
“He didn’t say, ‘What are you talking about?’” Burdge told Last Best News. “He didn’t say, ‘I don’t have any idea.’ He was absolutely stony-faced, looking at me in the eye—nothing, nothing. And to me, that silence said everything. And that’s what he’s doing now. He’s not talking, he’s not saying anything, he’s not defending himself—nothing. Again, to me, that says everything.”
Burdge said she wanted justice on behalf of her brother, who was her closest sibling and who provided a lot of guidance, doing “things for me that a parent would do.”
“That’s why I have fought this battle for him, because we were very close,” she said.
She didn’t know what to do with the information, however, since she had no evidence to support it. She thought she saw an opportunity in 2006. Hastert, as House speaker, was presiding over a scandal involving another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Mark Foley, who was found to have exchanged sexually explicit messages with an underage male House page.
Burdge said she contacted ABC, the AP, Harpo Productions (Oprah Winfrey’s company) and an advocacy group, but she refused to go on the record, and nothing she said could be corroborated at the time. She said she didn’t want to go on air or go on the record because “I just figured I would get too beat up.”
She also was afraid to get involved in a political fight. “I didn’t want it to be part of that because that wasn’t what this was about,” said Burdge, who said she has always leaned more to the conservative than to the liberal side.
Knowing what she knew was often difficult. Sometimes she became consumed by thoughts of what happened to her brother and became “a different person,” she said. And though she wasn’t obsessive about following Hastert’s career, she watched as he climbed the political ladder.
“I gotta say, the hardest thing was sitting and watching the State of the Union addresses, when there he sat,” she said. As was customary, the House speaker sat behind the president, alongside the vice president, often visible during the televised addresses.
“I went through a period of time when I was really angry,” Burdge said. “Because of everything our family had been through. It seems like with my family, we always had this stuff that was going on that was ahead of the time. We dealt with alcoholism before it was talked about, mental illness before it was talked about, AIDS before it was talked about, molestation before it was talked about. And so when this all started to feel like nothing was ever going to happen, I was really angry.
“I was like, come on, God. I know they say you never give people more than they can handle, but you’re like, right at the top.”
Her faith helped her realize that she had to let go of her anger. She had begun going to church again last year and attending Bible study classes.
“Right before this last Christmas is when—because I’d been working in the Bible study and because I’d been praying and thinking about this a lot—that’s when it finally became real in my heart that I had to let it go, that it wasn’t going to keep affecting me, that I had truly laid it down and was at peace. … I was done and it was over and that was OK.”
Or so she thought, until May 18, when she received a phone call from an FBI agent, who wanted to come to Billings and speak with her. The agent said she couldn’t divulge any details over the phone, but Burdge begged her for something.
“And she asked me, she said, ‘Did you go to Yorkville High School? And did you have a teacher named Dennis Hastert?’ And I just lost it. I just was like, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t think I’d ever get this call.’”
“And they were sitting here at the table on the evening of the 19th,” Burdge said last week, in an interview in her kitchen. The FBI agent was accompanied by a representative of the IRS, Bill Burdge said, which suggested that the investigation had something to do with finances. They knew nothing for certain until the indictment was unsealed on May 28.
Burdge got a call the same morning from the ABC reporter she’d talked to in 2006, and on June 3 she was interviewed in a room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Billings by ABC’s Brian Ross. The interview appeared on “Good Morning America” two days later, on June 5.
It aired at 7 a.m. EDT and by 5:30 Montana time, Bill Burdge said, “the phone started ringing off the hook.” But as he told everyone from the media, his wife had chosen to go on ABC to tell her story, once, to avoid the possibility of error or confusion.
The Burdges were surprised by some of the negative reaction, from people who refused to believe Hastert was capable of such activities, or people who couldn’t fathom why the abuse wasn’t reported earlier. They were able to laugh at some of the things they’d read about themselves, including claims that Burdge had been paid to tell her story, or that they’d signed a deal for a book and a movie.
“On the Internet, I was even accused of being Individual A,” Bill Burdge said.
The Burdges say they still don’t know who Individual A is, but they learned that a high school colleague of Jolene’s who also knows Individual A told the FBI about her. She said the person who tipped off the FBI was at her brother’s funeral and knew that Burdge had confronted Hastert.
“Over the years I’ve never been shy about saying that this happened, simply because I always hoped that one day it would fall on the right ears, which in a roundabout way it did,” she said.
Six weeks after her televised interview, Burdge said, the reality of it hasn’t quite sunk in yet.
“I can watch the interview and know that I did it, but it just seems too surreal to me that after all those years it was finally happening.”
Bill Burdge said they got the impression from what they have read and been told that federal prosecutors want to go after the financial structuring charges first, and when that case is resolved they may do something about the allegations of sexual abuse.
Jolene Burdge said she doesn’t really care whether Hastert is sent to prison. What she’d most like to see is other victims step forward and corroborate her brother’s story. She said she wanted to expose the dark side of a man who manipulated and hurt other people.
“That’s what I wanted to come out,” she said. “If he never does prison time, so be it.”
“To me, the ironic thing is that he did it to himself,” Burdge said of Hastert, whose autobiography, “Speaker,” she has read.
“One of the things in it that he learned from his years as a wrestling coach was that if you get pinned, it’s nobody’s fault but your own,” Burdge said. “And he got pinned. And it was his own doing.”