A Pillar Of Congress Shaken

December 25, 1993|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — TC fact that scares White House and congressional officials pondering the deepening grand jury investigation of the House's pre-eminent power broker.

The prospects for health and welfare reform -- major issues on the 1994 calendar -- would diminish without the Chicago Democrat forging deals as leader of the all-important Ways and Means Committee, these officials say.

"The notion of doing this without Rosty leaves people quaking in their boots," said a White House aide, using the veteran lawmaker's nickname.

If indicted, Mr. Rostenkowski would remain in Congress but be forced to step down as chairman, a prospect many in Washington were discussing after an article last Sunday in the Chicago Sun-Times. He allegedly put friends and Chicago neighbors on his office payroll even though they did little or no work in his district or Washington offices, according to the newspaper, which also reported that 40 past and present Rostenkowski employees have been subpoenaed by a grand jury in Washington.

Yearlong investigation

The grand jury had been investigating for more than a year allegations that Mr. Rostenkowski pocketed $21,000 by cashing in stamps he received free as a member of Congress. Other allegations involve use of federal funds to lease cars and office space in a building owned by Mr. Rostenkowski and his family.

He has not been charged with any crime and has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Despite the investigation, the 18-term congressman has carried on effectively, helping President Clinton win a critical victory on deficit-reduction legislation this year. "He seems to be pretty well focused on the business at hand," said a spokesman, who added that Mr. Rostenkowski had no plans to comment on the Sun-Times story.

Question of clout

If indicted, Mr. Rostenkowski, who turns 66 on Jan. 2, would be succeeded by Rep. Sam M. Gibbons, a Florida Democrat who will be 74 next month and who, by all accounts, lacks the consensus-building acumen of the chairman.

Moreover, Mr. Gibbons' expertise lies in trade, not health reform or welfare reform, complex and divisive issues on which the president is staking his future and that of his party.

The White House official, who asked not to be named, said Mr. Gibbons "does not have half the clout that Rostenkowski has" and "it's a tough, tough thing if Rosty goes down."

John Rother, legislative director of the American Association of Retired Persons, said it would be a "disaster" for health reform if Mr. Rostenkowski had to step aside.

"It's a little like having Joe Montana sidelined just before the start of the game, and now you have to go with somebody who is not tested," he said.

An aide to one Ways and Means member said Mr. Gibbons "is just not up to the job" and speculated that House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, would fill some of the power vacuum on issues like health reform. "I would be willing to bet Rosty would continue to have an enormous amount of influence regardless of whether he is chairman," the aide added.

"It's really scary," he said of Mr. Rostenkowski's troubles. Because many on Capitol Hill had begun to hope the grand jury investigation would fade away, the Sun-Times story "was a real blow to people."

The story documented a practice that has long been common in cities such as Chicago with entrenched Democratic political machines: the hiring of friends and cronies. What made this report so damaging is that it suggested a crime had been committed, because at least some of Mr. Rostenkowski's appointees allegedly had done no work for him while drawing federal pay.

Unseen employees

One example, James Nezda, the son of a former Illinois state legislator, received $48,000 from 1983 to 1986 as a part-time employee, although other Rostenkowski workers told the newspaper they had never heard of or seen Mr. Nezda.

During the time Mr. Nezda was on Mr. Rostenkowski's payroll, Mr. Nezda's father, Edward, arranged state jobs for two of Mr. Rostenkowski's daughters, the article said.

Another person listed on Mr. Rostenkowski's payroll, Sophie Palasz, 77, received more than $6,000 from 1985 to 1989, the newspaper said, but she could not remember doing any work since she baby-sat for his daughters -- the youngest of whom is now 33.

In another example cited by the newspaper, the wife of a Chicago alderman remained on Mr. Rostenkowski's payroll for five years after she stopped working in his district office in Chicago, receiving $79,000 in that period.

Post office scandal

The original allegations about receiving cash for stamps grew out of an investigation of the House Post Office. Former Postmaster Robert V. Rota admitted to participating in a fraudulent scheme benefiting lawmakers, implicating Mr. Rostenkowski, and in July pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.

The post office investigation was begun by then-U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens, a Republican who Rostenkowski attorney Robert S. Bennett charged was after his client for political reasons. But Clinton appointee Eric H. Holder Jr. has continued the inquiry.

Despite the investigation, Mr. Rostenkowski remains popular among Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers and their staffs express amazement at allegations that he personally profited at federal expense. "It's not like he has a chalet in Switzerland," said a longtime House aide. "What he craves is power and status. It's hard to believe this could possibly be true."

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