House to stop fixing members' tickets, Foley says

October 09, 1991|By David E. Rosenbaum | David E. Rosenbaum,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Trying to stem the controversy over congressional perquisites, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley announced yesterday that the House sergeant-at-arms would no longer intervene with the District of Columbia government to fix lawmakers' parking tickets.

From now on, Mr. Foley said, representatives who think they have been issued tickets improperly will have to handle the matter themselves with the local government.

The policy will not end dismissal of parking tickets issued to members of Congress, because a city ordinance allows them to park almost anywhere when they are on "official business."

But Mr. Foley's action will force a member who receives a ticket -- whether at noon outside an office building or at 3 a.m. in front of a night spot -- to make the case personally that he or she was on House business. The sergeant-at-arms had been handling the job.

The parking ticket issue is one of several that have embarrassed members of the House since it was disclosed last month that the House bank, without charging interest or other penalty, had covered the checks of scores of representatives who had overdrawn their accounts.

Across the country, editorial pages and radio call-in shows have been debating the supposedly pampered life led by members of Congress. Many lawmakers fear that the debates will fuel the movements that are under way in several states to limit the number of terms senators and representatives may serve.

Last week, the House voted to close its private bank and cut off the banking services that had been provided to House members for more than a century. The matter of the check-kiting was then turned over to the House ethics panel, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, for an inquiry into instances of repeated abuse of privileges at the bank.

Yesterday, the chairman of that committee, Representative Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, recused himself from the investigation because, he said, he himself had written checks against insufficient funds at the bank.

The next most senior Democrat on the committee is Matthew F. McHugh of Ithaca, N.Y. He has said he did not overdraw his account, and he will presumably be in charge of the inquiry.

Mr. Foley, a Democrat from Washington, said he had acted on the parking ticket issue to bring the House's practices into line with those of the Senate. In addition, Mr. Foley said, "I think it is important for people to know that we are taking corrective steps."

District of Columbia law allows lawmakers who have the proper license plates and are on "official business" to park free as long as necessary at any curb space except those marked as loading zones and those that would block firehouses or hydrants.

For as long as anyone in the Capitol can remember, senators who got parking tickets would take them to the secretary of the Senate and representatives would take theirs to the sergeant-at-arms of the House, and they would arrange with the local government for the tickets to be forgiven.

The practice came to an end in the Senate last January, but in the House, Jack Russ, the sergeant-at-arms, continued to act as an intermediary for representatives.

Mr. Foley said yesterday that he did not know how many parking tickets Mr. Russ had fixed in a typical week or month, and he declined to try to find out.

Mr. Russ has declined interviews since the recent disclosures began, and he did not return calls yesterday.

An official in the District of Columbia's Office of Intergovernmental Relations said that "anywhere from a handful to a couple of dozen" tickets handled by Mr. Russ were forgiven each week.

She said that no records were kept of which lawmakers got the tickets and that it was impossible to calculate how much revenue was lost to the district government.

Only parking tickets are involved. Tickets for moving violations are not forgiven, she said. Nor are those for improper registration or inspection stickers.

Meanwhile, since last week, lawmakers have not been permitted to sign for bills at the House restaurant and have had to pay cash or use credit cards.

The House Administration Committee said last week that representatives' overdue restaurant bills totaled more than $300,000.

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