WASHINGTON -- Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., the powerfu chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and two other congressmen yesterday spurned a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury investigating the House post office, charging that a U.S. attorney was playing politics with the law.
The House post office has been the focus of congressional and Justice Department investigations in recent months because of alleged sales of small amounts of cocaine by employees, accounting failures and patronage problems.
James C. Smith, a postal employee, has told prosecutors that he improperly exchanged postage vouchers for cash at the request of Mr. Rostenkowski and two Pennsylvania Democrats, Rep. Joe Kolter and Rep. Austin J. Murphy.
Citing a report made public this week by Democrats on a House panel, which found no evidence to support Mr. Smith's $l statement, the three lawmakers jointly wrote a letter yesterday to U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens challenging his right to investigate them.
"There is no evidence for us to refute; no charge to explain; and no person making a public allegation who needs to be rebutted," they wrote. "We can only conclude that the subpoenas for us are a product of an overall fishing expedition in an election year."
Claiming Fifth Amendment rights "to resist prosecutorial overreaching," they added, "we decline to lend any credence to an inquiry that lacks credibility and should be promptly closed."
A Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the three congressmen did not have the right to refuse to appear before a federal grand jury and could be compelled to do so by a court order.
In a separate letter to House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., the three lawmakers said they "do not expect to assert any legislative privilege with regard to the subpoenas," lessening the threat of a direct confrontation between Congress and the administration.
They said that they would instead "assert other constitutional privileges." It is very unusual for members of Congress to be subpoenaed.
The post office case, combined with scandals at the House bank and restaurant, has badly tarnished the reputation of the Congress and has been a major factor in the primary defeats of several House members and in some members' decisions not to seek re-election.
Though the scandals seemed to have faded in the public mind in recent months, the subpoenas may reopen a controversy that dominated House activity for weeks earlier this year.