WASHINGTON -- Lawyers for Rep. Dan Rostenkowski have approached federal prosecutors to try to negotiate a plea bargain that would avert a broad felony indictment against the powerful Illinois Democrat, lawyers involved in the case said yesterday.
The lawyers said the discussions could lead to Mr. Rostenkowski's agreement to plead guilty to a lesser charge. At this point, they said that the government and Mr. Rostenkowski's lawyers were still far apart and that the effort to reach an agreement could go nowhere, in which case Mr. Rostenkowski could be indicted, possibly before Memorial Day.
The inquiry that threatens Mr. Rostenkowski began in 1991 when investigators began examining accusations that postal clerks had stolen money from their cash drawers at the House mailing office. In July 1993, Robert V. Rota, the former House postmaster, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor embezzlement charges, implicating Mr. Rostenkowski in a scheme to disguise cash payments as postage stamp purchases.
Since then, investigators have conducted a broad inquiry, examining Mr. Rostenkowski's office accounts, including expenditures for office supplies, his hiring practices in his Chicago district office and his use of government-leased automobiles.
For Mr. Rostenkowski, who has denied any wrongdoing, avoiding an indictment on felony charges is crucial. Under Democratic caucus rules in the House, if he is indicted on a felony, he must immediately relinquish his post as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. That would remove a figure the administration has been counting on to help pass a health care bill, a core issue in Clinton's domestic agenda.
If Mr. Rostenkowski were charged with a misdemeanor, he would not be forced to step down immediately. But he would be subject to censure by his colleagues, which could lead to his surrendering his chairmanship. Some lawyers have said that he might seek to improve his bargaining position in plea negotiations by offering to resign later in the year.
Mr. Rostenkowski's influence on the Ways and Means Committee was evident yesterday when the panel began hearings on health care legislation.
"I will do whatever I need to get at least 20 votes in this committee," he said, referring to the minimum number of lawmakers needed for a majority.
Law enforcement officials say the decision on whether to prosecute Mr. Rostenkowski will be based on a cold analysis of the law and evidence. But some lawyers say it is impossible to eliminate subjective factors from such decisions, including the prosecutors' calculation of the possible public reaction.