Rostenkowski rejects any deal with prosecutor indictment may come today

May 31, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Breaking months of silence about the investigation that has tarnished his 42-year career as an elected official, a defiant Rep. Dan Rostenkowski said yesterday that "truth is on my side" and vowed to fight an imminent federal indictment on corruption charges and remain in the House of Representatives until his vindication.

Rejecting a proposed plea agreement that had been reached last week between federal prosecutors and his lawyers, the 66-year-old chairman of the Ways and Means Committee insisted once again that he was innocent and that he was prepared to be tried on a number of allegations of political graft.

"I strongly believe that I am not guilty of these charges and will fight to regain my reputation in court," Mr. Rostenkowski said in a brief statement issued by his office. "I will present a compelling case to the jury which will, I am confident, find me not guilty."

Speaking of the prosecutors, the Illinois Democrat added: "I will not make any deals with them. I did not commit any crimes. My conscience is clear."

The announcement was a pre-emptive strike against an indictment that federal prosecutors and lawyers for Mr. Rostenkowski said would be issued today by a grand jury and announced at an afternoon news conference by Eric H. Holder Jr., the U.S. attorney in Washington.

Mr. Rostenkowski, who has served 18 terms in Congress, acknowledged that under House rules the indictment would force him to relinquish the powerful grip he has held over the Ways and Means Committee for more than a decade, just as it is considering President Clinton's health care legislation.

"If I am indicted, I will temporarily give up the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee but will continue to serve as an active member of Congress," he said. "I am confident that I will be vindicated, and I look forward to the return of the gavel."

Many lawmakers fear that without Mr. Rostenkowski heading the committee, the health care package could bog down.

But Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat who is the House majority leader, said yesterday that he believed the committee would be able to produce a comprehensive health care bill and send it to the House floor without Mr. Rostenkowski as chairman. "I have always believed we will get a bill on the floor in July," he said. "I think we have a great change to pass a bill."

The prosecutors had given Mr. Rostenkowski until today to accept the plea agreement that would have required his resignation from Congress, his acknowledgment that he broke federal laws and his willingness to serve a brief prison sentence. The indictment also could lead to a House ethics investigation, which in turn could lead to a recommendation to the full House that he be admonished or even expelled.

The indictment, the culmination of a three-year investigation into congressional graft that began when a postal clerk was caught stealing small amounts of cash from a branch of the House post office, is said to include scores of felony counts against Mr. Rostenkowski.

Lawyers involved in the case said the counts involve transactions that go back to the mid-1980s and will include conspiracy to violate federal laws, embezzlement of government property, fraud and tax violations.

The investigation has centered on accusations that Mr. Rostenkowski embezzled money from the House post office with the help of the postmaster, had "phantom" employees on his payroll and charged the government for personal items worth tens of thousands of dollars.

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