WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives received another black eye yesterday when House Postmaster Robert V. Rota resigned amid reports that the scandal-plagued post office improperly cashed lawmakers' congressional and campaign checks.
Mr. Rota, who has been postmaster for 20 years, announced his resignation on his 57th birthday in a brief letter to House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash. He becomes the second House official to resign in the past week. House Sergeant-at-Arms Jack Russ, sharply criticized for the way he ran the now-closed House bank, quit on March 12 just before lawmakers agreed to identify all 355 House members and former lawmakers who wrote overdrafts at the bank.
Mr. Rota stepped down from his $119,200 post after the Washington Times reported House members cashed personal checks and thousands of dollars in campaign checks at the postal facility, an independent contractor to the U.S. Postal Service.
Those unidentified sources also said that congressional or campaign checks were used ostensibly to buy stamps but would be turned in for cash. In some cases, members would have cash envelopes delivered to their offices by postal employees who would return with a check.
Karen Earl, a postal inspector, said postal regulations prohibit using postal funds to cash checks, although it is not a criminal violation.
A federal grand jury is investigating charges of drug dealing and theft at the post office.
Mr. Rota, who was elected by members after each Congress, made no mention of the federal probe or the newspaper's allegations in his letter. He also released a statement saying, "The House of Representatives has been very good to me. I love the institution and have the highest regard for all its members."
Don MacLean, a spokesman for Mr. Rota, said the postmaster has considered retiring for "a couple of years." And Mr. Foley told reporters, "I don't think there's any connection . . . at all" with the latest news reports.
For the past month, the post office has been the subject of an investigation by a bipartisan task force of the House Administration Committee. "There was gross mismanagement at the House Post Office," said Rep. Charles Rose, a North Carolina Democrat and the committee's chairman, who called Mr. Rota's resignation "a very wise decision."
"We want a competently managed post office," he said.
The congressman has said the task force would question Mr. Foley's wife, Heather, who serves as the House speaker's unsalaried chief of staff. The Washington Times has reported that Mr. Rota privately told House officials that Mrs. Foley told him to keep quiet about the post office problems.
Mr. Foley and other Democrats are eager to put the administrative troubles of the House bank and the post office behind them. House Republicans are blaming the bank and post office scandals on the decades of Democratic rule. The House speaker said he hopes to take up legislation next week to create an administrator that would oversee House operations.
Meanwhile, Democrats looking toward the November campaign gathered at an informal luncheon yesterday with a commercial banker and pollsters, in an effort to deal with the public outrage over the House bank scandal. The closed-door meeting is one of a series of occasional gatherings held by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"I think the objective is to just air the issue out and give members advice on how to deal with the problem," said Rep. Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat, emerging from the luncheon.