Embezzlement charges bring down a key Clinton ally
Embezzlement charges bring down a key Clinton ally
Dan Rostenkowski is a big man, as gruff and tough as his broadshouldered native city,
Chicago. He became a big man in Washington by way of his home town’s rough-and-ready machine politics. In the 1950s, he succeeded his father (known as Big Joe Rusty) as a Democratic Party ward boss and absorbed the lesson that power is based on the pork barrel and purchased with patronage. From his Polish-American base in north Chicago, Rostenkowski won election to the Illinois legislature at age 24, to the state senate two years later and then, at 30, to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he is now serving his 18th successive twoyear term. For the last 13 years of that 35-year stretch, he wielded immense power.
In 1981, his style tempered by the acquired arts of cajolery and compromise, Rostenkowski assumed one of Washing-1 ton’s most powerful positions: | chairmanship of the House ways and means committee. The holder of that position directs the terms of key spending legislation, and bears primary responsibility for making it law. The chairman is courted by minions and the mighty. In that office, Rostenkowski earned respect and trust on both sides of the House. But last week, a federal lawyer knocked the big man rudely off his perch of power with a 17-count felony indictment, including embezzlement from the public purse. That amounts, the lawyer said, to “a pattern of corrupt activity for more than 20 years.”
With that, and despite Rostenkowski’s insistence that he will prove his innocence in federal court, the congressman was forced by his party’s rules to forfeit his chairmanship. But the charges are exerting an impact
much wider than the negative implications for the 66-year-old warhorse, including his now-dubious prospects of winning a 19th term in the congressional election on Nov. 8. The case disrupts the government’s agenda and further discredits the sullied name of American politics.
Although it was widely known that Rostenkowski had been under investigation by a federal grand jury for two years, the hitherto public details of the accusations—putting friends on the public payroll and cashing in postage stamps acquired with government funds— seemed petty mistakes, possibly committed by careless staffers, to lay on a man responsible for winning passage of trillion-dollar
REPORT FROM WASHINGTON
federal budgets. But the harshness of the announcement’s language and the total scale of the allegations, which the indictment statement on May 31 costed at more than $700,000, reopened a serious wound in the American body politic. Apart from the stamp-scam charges, and other alleged diversions of public and campaign funds, Rostenkowski is accused of obstructing justice by “instructing a witness to withhold evidence from the grand jury.”
Before those charges were laid, Congress was only beginning to live down a 1992 scandal. That involved a pattern of personal overdrafts at a congressional bank, now closed, on the records of more than half the 435member House, many of whom have since quit politics or were forced out in the 1992 election. “This is not a petty matter,” declared Eric Holder, the justice department attorney who delivered the grand jury indictment against Rostenkowski. Said Holder, 43, a Democrat and a former superior court judge: “The cost of such misconduct must also be measured in terms of the corrosive effect it has on our democratic system of government and on the trust our citizens have in their elected officials.”
President Bill Clinton, himself beset by charges of past financial and sexual misdeeds, is scarred by the Rostenkowski case. The two men have been prime allies in promoting the young government’s agenda and
Clinton’s reformist crusade—including the President’s campaign pronouncement that “it’s long past time to clean up Washington.” Immediately, Rostenkowski’s demotion down the table on the 39-member ways and means committee interrupts his efforts to cast Clinton’s health-care insurance reform into law and raises question marks over personal deals closed by Rostenkowski to advance the legislation. Leadership of the health-care campaign now falls by seniority to the committee’s new chairman, Florida Democrat Sam Gibbons, 74, who has had a brittle relationship with Rostenkowski and other House leaders. In the past, he has ad-
vocated Canadian-style government health insurance, but the Clinton administration, and most of Congress, insistently rely on the commercial insurance industry.
Clinton had counted on Rostenkowski’s experience, pragmatism and negotiating skills to rescue the health-care legislation from a bog of dispute. That Clinton priority, along with backed-up measures to fight crime and reform welfare, carry the administration’s hopes of retaining Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress in the November election.
Rostenkowski won Clinton’s respect when he piloted the President’s first budget to a one-vote victory last summer and then, in November, put down a rebellion against the North American Free Trade Agreement and
200 vote. In return, Clinton expressed his gratitude with a timely favor when Rostenkowski faced unaccustomed opposition in seeking his home district’s nomination in March to run again for re-election in the fall. Clinton, breaching a tradition whereby the President shows no favor among competing candidates of his own party, travelled to north Chicago to stand with Rostenkowski and praise him publicly. Two weeks later, the chairman defeated four Democrat rivals in a primary election. After that, Rostenkowski turned his full at-
tention to getting a sellable health-care package onto the floor of the full House. He kept up the pressure even during the distractions of his imminent indictment. Lawyers on the case bargained over a deal for a lesser
charge, a guilty plea and a short jail term. But Rostenkowski, declaring that “I did not commit any crimes,” announced on the eve of his indictment that “I will not make any deals.” Only 12 days earlier, Rostenkowski him-
Only 12 days earlier, Rostenkowski himself made a deal on behalf of the health-care bill, albeit at a heavy price. In an effort to swing the votes of committee members who represent insurance interests, he made a pact with the Health Insurance Association of America, a potent opponent of Clinton’s plan. Rostenkowski promised to soften a provision to outlaw discriminatory insurance premiums charged to sick and elderly people, or those in hazardous jobs. For their part, insurance association officials agreed to suspend a persuasive campaign of TV commercials that feature a fictional middle-class couple named Harry and Louise criticizing the Clinton plan.
There were many other deals made dur ing Rostenkowski's 35 years in Congress that both admirers of his skills in Washing ton and beneficiaries of his attention in Chicago may now wish that he had never consummated. According to the accusations against him, he arranged with a House post office employee who owed his job to Ros tenkowski to draw cash expensed as stamp purchases that finally added up to "at least $50,000." (Members of Congress, like MPs in Canada, may send official mail free of charge; Rostenkowski has said in the past that he needed stamps for overseas mail ings.) As well, "he caused Congress to pay over $70,000 for personal vehicles used by himself and his family," Holder said in his in dictment statement. And at an overall cost to the government of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Rostenkowski "regularly put people on his congressional payroll who did liffle or no official work but who instead performed personal services for him, his family, his family insurance businesses and his cam paign organization." At home in north Chicago on the night he won the nomination in March, Rostenkowski praised his supporters as people who realize that "government in Washington can work and must work." To those who voted against him, he said: "You must understand that poli tics is not a profession that rewards purity or perfection. It is about consensus and compro mise, two values that I treasure. The critics say that I'm not perfect and they're right. I've made mistakes. I hope I've learned from them and will do better in the future than I've done in the past" Whether the big man from Chicago has a chance to make good on that promise may be decided in a court case ex pected to last for years and, in the interim, by his home-town voters in November. Ros tenkowski is an old-time politician, totally de voted to the craft, who clearly draws no fine lines between his political and his personal lives. But in the cynical 1990s, the allegations against him put the American political sys tem on notice that it must try to do better than it has in the past.
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