New House post office scandal casts ethics shadow anew over Congress Revelations could fuel voter anger, set off anti-incumbent fervor in '94

July 25, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau Nelson Schwartz contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Just seven months into its new era of fresh faces and reform, the House of Representatives is back under a cloud of scandal that threatens to undermine public confidence in an already maligned institution.

New revelations last week about a stamps-for-cash embezzlement scheme that allegedly involved several members of Congress marks the third time in five years that the ethics of House leaders -- and the institution in general -- have been called into question.

While Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was implicated by in the scheme by former House Postmaster Robert V. Rota, the congressman has not been indicted. Mr. Rostenkowski denies any wrongdoing.

In his plea bargain Monday, Mr. Rota, who pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and two counts of embezzlement, said that the postage stamps provided to members of Congress for business use were exchanged by several members for cash. Mr. Rota said he would issue large numbers of stamps that were later exchanged for cash. False vouchers made out for postage were also exchanged for cash, Mr. Rota alleged.

Mr. Rostenkowski allegedly exchanged office postage for as much as $21,300.

bTC The practice was described by federal prosecutors as a regular favor by political appointees who supplied their patrons with what one congressman called "going home money."

The image is not pretty.

"It feeds the impression among voters that all politicians and those in Washington in particular can't be trusted and raises questions again about whom they are serving," political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said. "It keeps that caldron of voter skepticism bubbling."

Rostenkowski at risk

Most immediately at risk is Mr. Rostenkowski, a Chicago machine politician and 18-year veteran of the House who is widely expected by colleagues to be indicted.

A key player in the negotiations over House-Senate compromise on President Clinton's economic plan, Mr. Rostenkowski's every move is dogged by a battery of television cameras and reporters.

The chairman has protested that he is the victim of a political witch hunt.

He repeated that claim at a news conference yesterday. But his refusal last year to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the matter has prompted a call by at least one major newspaper, the New York Times, for him to relinquish his powerful role in the budget process.

Potential successors to Mr. Rostenkowski are already jockeying

behind the scenes for his Ways and Means job, which he must give up if he is indicted.

Florida Democrat Sam M. Gibbons, the vice chairman and mostly likely successor, is viewed by friends of the chairman as unseemly in his eagerness to take over the job. Other prospective candidates are Charles B. Rangel of New York and Pete Stark of California, two other senior members of the committee more popular than Mr. Gibbons.

Others feel vulnerable

But Mr. Rostenkowski is not the only House member with his career on the line. All the lawmakers are feeling politically vulnerable.

The ugly, highly partisan atmosphere that prevailed when former House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas and House Majority Whip Tony Coelho of California were forced to resign in 1989 for ethics transgressions -- and nearly smothered the House last year during the House bank scandal -- returned last week with a painful jolt of deja vu.

During a bitter floor debate Thursday over the release of materials related to the post office probe, Republican Rep. Scott L. Klug of Wisconsin accused the House leadership of refusing to "fess up its dirty little secrets."

Democratic leaders protested that they were withholding the material because Acting U.S. Attorney J. Ramsey Johnson asked that the material from a House inquiry be withheld until the criminal investigation is complete.

Oklahoma Democratic Rep. Mike Synar dismissed Mr. Klug and his GOP colleagues as "brain dead . . . terrorists trying to bring the whole institution down."

While the minority party Republicans have less to lose than the Democrats, who control both houses of Congress, many could be swept away in an anti-incumbent fervor in next year's elections.

"There is no reason to think it's not going to be an anti-incumbent year next year and this just makes it worse," said Charles E. Cook, a political analyst and columnist for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. "It's hard to get that tar baby off them."

Voter anger, which had such a dramatic impact on the 1992 election, is on the rise again.

According to a recent survey by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, 78 percent of those surveyed now say Congress is not doing the job it was elected to do and it is time for a change, an increase of 8 percentage points from July 1991, when Congress was last at this point in the election cycle. Those who strongly hold that view have increased by 16 percent during the same period.

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