Rostenkowski's Conscience . . .

June 01, 1994

Rep. Dan Rostenkowski says, "I did not commit any crimes, my conscience is clear." And, "I strongly believe I am not guilty of these charges." If by those statements he means he did not do what a grand jury in Washington in a 17-count indictment said he did, then we hope he will be "vindicated," to use his word, by a trial jury. But if he means only, as some of his supporters have suggested, that he did what is charged but that this should not be considered felonious, then that's another matter.

These are "very reprehensible" crimes, as U.S. Attorney Eric Holder put it. If the powerful representative from Chicago employed ghost workers who kicked back pay for work not done, if he regularly and for long periods used federal employees for work at his homes, if he used official expense accounts for purely personal enrichment in the form of cash and gifts -- all to the tune of over $600,000 in taxpayer funds -- if he did all those things and then tried to obstruct the federal investigation into his case, as alleged in the indictments, then he deserves the severest punishment the law can impose.

Such acts are not, as some defenders of Representative Rostenkowski keep saying, standard operating procedure for powerful members of Congress. Rep. Robert Torricelli is just wrong when he says, "[Representative Rostenkowski] is being prosecuted for things which, a generation ago, were probably somewhat accepted." The things charged in the indictment were never accepted, at least not by the public. The things listed in the indictment are not just "perks" for the powerful. They weren't when Mr. Rostenkowski became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in 1981; they weren't when he came to Congress in 1959. The felonies charged in the indictment then as now add up to a "betrayal of the public trust for personal gain," to use Mr. Holder's label.

Representative Rostenkowski may not have done these deeds at all. If he says he didn't do them, then it becomes something a jury must decide. Political corruption indictments are almost never shaky; about 90 percent of them result in convictions, according to Justice Department records. Still, as we have said before, even the high and mighty deserve the presumption of innocence. In just the past 13 months two members of Congress, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, beat indictments charging abuse of office.

If Mr. Rostenkowski prevails by convincing jurors that he did not behave as charged, good for him. But if he prevails with a defense of "it's the way Congress works, everybody does it," then shame on him and on Congress.

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