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Dennis Hastert and Walter Block

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Pity former Speaker of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert.

He is now the defendant in a lawsuit brought by one of the anonymous individuals who were apparently extorting money from him. The extortionist wants $1.8 million.

Lest we forget, Hastert has been sentenced to 15 months in prison for having been too sneaky about withdrawing the funds he was using to pay this guy off.

From an NBC report:

When the FBI questioned Hastert about the money, he lied and said he just wanted to keep it in a safe place, prosecutors said. His lawyers later contacted agents and told them he was actually being extorted by an ex-student with a false claim of sexual abuse from decades ago.

With recorders running, the agents had Hastert speak with Individual A and claim he was having trouble coming up with the next payment. They said the other man's tone and remarks were not consistent with an extortion plot.

So the key legal distinction here is between "extortion" on the one hand and the settlement of an unbrought civil lawsuit for millions. The FBI decided the tone of the person demanding the money seemed more to fit into the latter classification than the former. That, in turn, proved to be very bad news for Hastert.

But what exactly is the distinction? Was the tone a symptom that someone was on one side rather than the other of a distinction that itself seems devilishly hard  to describe? Is it that the claims used to get money from Hastert were true? (As a matter of law, that does NOT seem to be a tenable distinction.)

I'm reminded of a once-notorious book by the libertarian philosopher and gadflyWalter Block, Defending the Undefendable.

One of the 'undefendable' characters Block defended consisted of "the blackmailer," defended under the heading "free speech." If -- that is, most of us, aside from Walter Block -- if we condemn blackmailers: why? And does the reason why do so allow any room for the distinction of "tone" that seems to have swayed the FBI here?

Okay, don't pity Hastert. But the situation seems odd.


  1. It seems to me significant whether the claims used to get money from Hastert were true. If they were false, then the person making them was threatening to defame Hastert, and defamation, even if not a crime, should be viewed as contrary to public policy. We do not want people to have to sue to preserve their reputations. Therefore, I would treat a threat to defame someone unless he pays the person making the threat as criminal extortion.

    By contrast, if someone threatens to reveal something true, then I do not see a reason to consider it extortion or blackmail. But perhaps a reason exists, even if I don't see it. I am open to suggestions.

    Let me broaden the question: Should any threat to do something legal and non-defamatory ever be considered extortion or blackmail? How about a threat to bring a frivolous lawsuit--for child custody, say? The trauma that such a suit might inflict on the defendant, even if her or she could easily win the suit and perhaps even recover attorney's fees from plaintiff, is something that we should want to prevent.

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