Washington is baffled by Rostenkowski scandal


July 26, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

In 1980, when Dan Rostenkowski could have taken steps that might have led to his becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives, he decided to become chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means instead.

It was a somewhat unusual choice.

Rostenkowski was not an expert on taxes. He was not a lawyer. He was not even a college graduate.

But he knew something very, very important about public life:

It doesn't last forever. Not even for a Democrat from Chicago.

"I figured if you wanted to be where the action is, you're certainly going to be in the eye of the hurricane in Ways and Means," Rostenkowski told a reporter. "And if you were going to leave government, everybody in big business would certainly know who Rostenkowski was."

As chairman of Ways and Means, Rostenkowski, known as Rosty to his friends, became the man to see if you cared about taxes, Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, welfare, or international trade.

And almost overnight, there was a large crowd of people lining up to kiss his ring.

A tiny change in the tax laws could make an industry billions of dollars. And Rosty was now in charge of the tax laws.

But today, Rostenkowski does not stand accused of taking money from the captains of industry. He stands accused (though not indicted, let alone convicted) of embezzling about $20,000 from the House Post Office.

Many are baffled by the accusation. Rosty has a political war chest of $1 million.

And before the rules were changed, he earned more in honoraria than any other member of the House -- $310,000 in 1990, about $27,000 of which he was allowed to keep (with the rest going to charity).

So would he chisel $20,000 over a period of years, when he made more than that in a single year on speeches?

People in Washington cannot figure it out.

But then people in Washington often do not understand people from Chicago.

Chiseling small is accepted practice to many Chicago politicians of Rostenkowski's generation.

The small chisel is a perk of office. Some Chicago pols look upon a few thousand here and few thousand there the way ordinary people look upon the felt-tip pens in the office supply cabinet.

The big chisel is different. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in a land deal for example, is considered a crime and vulgar (though it is sometimes considered worth it).

Unfortunately for those who are caught at it, however, chisels both big and small are crimes.

"If Rosty falls, it's that double life that did him in," a Democratic source in Chicago told me. "He is almost royalty in Washington. Captains of industry come to him, presidents, everybody. Then every weekend he flies home to that ramshackle house of his. He has no real wealth, you know. He doesn't have the resources to keep up with the company he keeps. So maybe he looked for some."

But $20,000? Spread out over years?

"But this is a notoriously cheap guy remember," the source said. "As [Bears Coach Mike] Ditka once said about [team owner George] Halas, 'He throws nickels around like manhole covers.' A few thousand bucks is a lot to Rosty. But I've got to tell you, if he did it, the stupidity would be mind-boggling. If Rosty wanted $20,000, he knows a thousand quasi-legal ways to get it."

Iris Krasnow, a Chicagoan who is now a professor at American University in Washington, spent a year researching and writing what is considered the definitive profile of Rostenkowski for Chicago magazine. And she says she would be very surprised if he should fall from power.

"I simply don't believe it," she said. "Yes, he likes leading an affluent lifestyle, but you are not going to get Dan Rostenkowski on $20,000 worth of postage stamps. I don't believe anybody is going to bring him down on Mickey Mouse stuff like this."

But the Democratic source in Chicago is not so sure.

"I feel sorry for Rosty," he said. "He has spent a lifetime transcending the image of the ethnic ward boss to become one of the most powerful men in national politics. Now, it's like 'Godfather III.' Events just keep pulling him back in."

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