I have a piece on what it means to claim that Dennis Hastert was being subjected to an extortion attempt:
Suppose Individual A calls a lawyer, and tells the lawyer his story. The lawyer calls Hastert, and tells him he wants to talk to Hastert’s lawyer. The two lawyers then negotiate a settlement, in which, in exchange for a payment, Individual A agrees to sign a release, waiving any legal claims he has against Hastert. Such an agreement would certainly include a non-disclosure provision, making the payment contingent upon Individual A’s promise not to disclose the existence of the agreement. All this is perfectly legal, which means the agreement would be enforced by court orders if necessary. But of course the whole point of the agreement is to make it unnecessary for any legal action to ever be filed. In effect, Hastert and Individual A are entering into a contract to bury evidence of Hastert’s crime, in exchange for money.
Now suppose Individual A calls Hastert up and tells him, “if you don’t pay me $3.5 million, I’ll call a press conference and announce that you molested me when I was your student. But if you pay me, I promise to keep quiet.” This is extortion, which is a serious crime. (By the way, if Hastert agrees to this arrangement and then reneges, Individual A can’t go to court to enforce the agreement, because criminal contracts aren’t legally enforceable.)
On one level, the distinction between these two situations is perfectly clear, as Richard Nixon used to say. On another, it’s troubling that we allow people to buy silence regarding their crimes, as long as the appropriate paperwork is drawn up first.