Rostenkowski may quit post, get time in jail

May 25, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Dan Rostenkowski's lawyers have told federal prosecutors that he will step down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and serve a relatively short prison term if the government agrees not to seek a multicount felony indictment, lawyers involved in the case said yesterday.

Mr. Rostenkowski's concessions brought his defense team and federal prosecutors to the brink of a plea agreement that would probably end the career of one of the most powerful politicians in Congress, but would spare him a long, costly criminal trial and the risk of a long prison term.

If the plea arrangement falls through, prosecutors would proceed with the broader indictment, involving accusations that he misused office expense accounts.

In that case, Mr. Rostenkowski would still be forced out of his chairmanship, though not necessarily out of Congress. Either way, his early departure from the committee would pose a severe setback to President Clinton's hopes for getting a comprehensive health plan through Congress this year.

If Mr. Rostenkowski departs, Rep. Sam M. Gibbons, D-Fla., would likely succeed him. But Mr. Gibbons' colleagues worry that he lacks the fire and political muscle of Mr. Rostenkowski to hold a majority together in an unruly committee on a fractious issue such as health care.

Plea bargain negotiations ended yesterday with the situation highlyfluid and with both sides reluctantly edging close to agreement, but still unwilling to predict the outcome until the final language has been agreed on.

The discussions could lead to Mr. Rostenkowski's pleading guilty to at least one offense, but the precise violation has not yet been settled on.

Left unclear was precisely when the Chicago Democrat would give up his Ways and Means Committee chairmanship, which House Democratic caucus rules would require if he were indicted on a felony count.

Also unresolved is whether Mr. Rostenkowski would be forced to resign from the House, an outcome that some of his allies consider inevitable.

Some people who have closely followed the discussions said that the next 48 hours would be crucial and that disagreements over fine points could unravel a settlement.

In that event, Mr. Rostenkowski, who has denied any wrongdoing, would be subject to indictment at any time.

He faces possible charges on an array of potential violations arising from his use of office expense accounts, including what Robert V. Rota, the former House postmaster, said were cash payments to Mr. Rostenkowski disguised as stamp purchases.

With Republicans in the House threatening to initiate censure proceedings against Mr. Rostenkowski if he enters a plea agreement with the government, Eric Holder Jr., the U.S. attorney in Washington, has moved carefully to avoid accepting a deal that could expose him to charges of favoritism for one of Mr. Clinton's most important congressional allies.

Robert S. Bennett, Mr. Rostenkowski's lawyer, declined to comment yesterday on the negotiations. Representatives of the U.S. attorney's office and the Justice Department also declined to comment.

The investigation that has reached Mr. Rostenkowski began in 1991 when investigators were summoned to examine irregularities at the House post office.

In July 1993, Rota, pleading guilty to misdemeanor embezzlement charges, implicated Mr. Rostenkowski in what the postal official said were cash payments in excess of $20,000 hidden as office stamp purchases. Later, prosecutors widened their inquiry to examine his purchase of office supplies, including commemorative chairs from the House, his hiring practices in his Chicago district office and his use of government-owned automobiles.

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