MICHELE NORRIS, host:
House Speaker Dennis Hastert has spent much of the last week doing something he'd rather avoid, fielding media questions about some land he sold last year. The parcel of Illinois farmland netted Hastert almost $2 million and critics charge that extra value was added after Hastert won approval for a road project to be built nearby.
NPR's Luke Burbank traveled to Hastert's district near Chicago and filed this report.
LUKE BURBANK reporting:
I'm standing in the middle of a cornfield in Yorkville, Illinois, about 45 minutes southwest of Chicago. Some people say this is the best farmland in the world, but lately a new cash crop has been growing in these fields, houses. Thousands of them. Big, suburban developments with names like Whispering Meadows and Bristol Bay. Of course, all those new residents will have to find some way to get to and from where they're going and the roads here in Kendall County just aren't up to the task.
Enter a proposed $1 billion highway project known as the Prairie Parkway. It's meant to connect Yorkville and the other small towns around here with the bustling thoroughfares of I-88 to the north and I-80 to the south. Of course, figuring out the exact route the Prairie Parkway should take, the motives of those pushing for it and really who stands to benefit the most from its construction? Well, that's where things get complicated.
(Soundbite of ringing telephone)
Ms. MARVEL DAVIS (Resident, Kendall County): Hello? Hi, Jerry. Guess who's here. Public radio. So I better be careful what I say.
BURBANK: From her kitchen window, 79-year-old Marvel Davis can see the grove of trees in the next field over where the Prairie Parkway could be coming through soon. She's a self-described environmentalist and like a good number of others here in Little Rock Township, she opposes the freeway project. Her crowd, though, she says, is no match for the parkway's strongest supporter.
Ms. DAVIS: Denny Hastert is a very powerful man and he is really behind this road.
BURBANK: For nearly 20 years, Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican from nearby Yorkville, has been calling for a new freeway to alleviate congestion in the area. Last year he was finally able to secure initial funding for the project, $207 million, by adding a last-minute earmark to the 2005 Transportation Bill. His ardent support for the Prairie Parkway had a wrinkle, a wrinkle uncovered by Bill Allison.
Mr. WILLIAM ALLISON (The Sunlight Foundation): What you have is a clear situation where a high-ranking official is making policy decisions and advocating policies and discussing, you know, growth is coming, we have to do something about it. And not disclosing to the public that he is benefiting financially from that growth.
BURBANK: Allison is a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group based in Washington. The financial benefit he says Hastert got was two million dollars in profit from the sale of two parcels of land, land that was just over five miles from the likely route of the Prairie Parkway.
Hastert had two partners in the deal, Tom Klatt and Dallas Ingemunson. Here's what Ingemunson, who's the chief fundraiser for Hastert's reelection campaign, says about his longtime friend.
Mr. DALLAS INGEMUNSON (Dennis Hastert's partner in land deal): He doesn't have an evil bone in his body and doesn't have any kind of a sense of trying to become wealthy. I mean this all happened because of happenstance.
BURBANK: I caught up with Ingemunson at Ralph's Pub, just off the 18th hole of the Blackberry Oaks Golf Course in Yorkville. He looked tired as he sipped on a cocktail. All week he's been defending the real estate deal.
He says the deal came about quite innocently when a parcel of land adjacent to Hastert's farm came up for sale. The three men bought the land and combined it with part of Hastert's existing property. That parcel was then sold to a developer at a big profit.
Much of the suspicion over the deal comes because the property was held in what's called a blind trust known as Little Rock number 225. That made it less than obvious that Hastert was involved.
Mr. INGEMUNSON: He wasn't trying to hide anything.
BURBANK: Ingemunson says the blind trust was actually his idea. He says it was just more convenient. It meant he could deal with the paperwork without waiting for Hastert or Tom Klatt or their wives every time documents needed to be signed. He says if he could do it over again he would've just put Hastert's name on the deal.
Mr. INGEMUNSON: We talked about this and I suggested that, you know, it would facilitate matters a lot if we just had a land trust, I could be the trustee. That's all it was for, is to facilitate the transaction, not to hide something.
BURBANK: But there's also the matter of Hastert's financial disclosure sheet. Hastert's 2005 form simply lists the sale of a quarter share of 69 acres of land. It doesn't say where the land is and it doesn't name the trust and that doesn't sit right with Bill Allison.
Mr. ALLISON: Looking at his financial disclosure forms, there was no way to tell he was selling real estate to a real estate developer. There's no way to tell he was selling this land, you know, to whom he was selling it, and no way to follow the transactions if you didn't know the name of the trust.
BURBANK: Back to the original question though, did this proposed highway really add extra value to Hastert's land? Well, not if you ask Art Zwemke, and he should know. He's the developer who bought the property. This is how he describes it.
Mr. ART ZWEMKE (Real estate developer): Like a nice hot fudge sundae, great ice cream, wonderful whip cream, and some nuts on top and we're happy with the property. If and when the Prairie Parkway occurs, that could be the cherry on top of the sundae.
BURBANK: Kendall County's assessor concurs, by the way. He says any added value from the road won't come for ten or 12 years, the time it could take to complete the project.
Denny Hastert could be retired by then, but ironically he likely won't spend that much time on the Prairie Parkway, he used most of that two million dollar profit to buy a vacation home in Wisconsin, which his friend Dallas Ingemunson says has a beautiful view of the Mississippi River.
Luke Burbank, NPR News, Chicago.
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