A trial for Rostenkowski will serve public interest



WASHINGTON -- The decision of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski to fight the charges of misuse of public funds rather than accept a plea bargain may complicate President Clinton's drive for health care reform. But in addition to giving Rosty his day in court, it will probably do more for public confidence in the political system than a behind-the-scenes deal that would always be suspect in the eyes of many average Americans.

Plea-bargaining -- negotiating a plea with an alleged wrongdoer to avoid a lengthy and costly trial in return for a lighter sentence than a jury might mete out -- is a commonplace of today's vastly overcrowded court dockets. Little publicity is given to most plea bargains, and the public hence usually associates them with high-profile public figures, mostly politicians, who seem thereby to be getting special treatment.

Such deals for reduced sentences, if they entail jail time at all, often lead to the convicted politician's incarceration in one of several low-security facilities derided not without reason as "country clubs." That circumstance further eats at public confidence in the application of justice.

The chances are, given the long period of time federal investigators have taken building a case against Rostenkowski and the serious political implications in taking him to court, that he will be hard-pressed to beat the rap. But the reminder by White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers that "he's innocent until proven guilty" needs no emphasizing, and after Rostenkowski's long and influential career in Congress he cannot be blamed for wanting to try to salvage it.

On many occasions, plea-bargaining has considerable merit in the public interest as well as in the personal interest of the accused. It does save taxpayer money, lighten the courts' workload and in rare cases successfully copes with a severe political dilemma -- as in the plea bargain that removed Vice President Spiro T. Agnew from office, and more importantly from the direct line of presidential succession, in 1973.

At the time federal prosecutors in Maryland were building an airtight case against Agnew on charges of taking contractors' kickbacks as Baltimore County executive, governor of Maryland and even vice president, the Watergate scandal simultaneously was imperiling the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. Fearing that an impeachment of Nixon or his resignation would put the tainted Agnew in the Oval Office, the Justice Department under then Attorney General Elliot Richardson moved quickly to plea-bargain Agnew out of the vice presidency.

To expedite matters, Richardson -- with Nixon's eventual blessing -- negotiated with Agnew's lawyers, and with the approval of the federal judge assigned to the case, to accept a plea of nolo contendere (no contest) to a single charge of income tax evasion and Agnew's immediate resignation. In return, Richardson agreed not to recommend a jail sentence, a recommendation accepted by the judge, understanding as he did that the paramount public interest was in removing Agnew from his position "a heartbeat away" from the presidency. The judge gave Agnew a three-year suspended sentence and a $10,000 fine.

Even in this classic instance, complaints were heard that justice had been ill-served. Richardson, asked at a post-sentencing news conference whether the public wasn't "going to gather that if a man is high enough, he gets off very lightly," conceded the point.

His awareness "that this would be the reaction, or might be the reaction," was why in court he had tried "to make as clear as I could . . . that the interests of justice, as well as the interests of the public, were better served in this instance" by not requiring "confinement of the former vice president in a penal institution."

Although the kickback charges were stipulated in the agreement, Agnew later sought to convey the idea that he had never admitted to them and had been railroaded, and sympathizers chose to accept that view. Rostenkowski's decision to take his chances in court should avoid a repetition of that deception, and in that sense should serve the public interest, as well as Rostenkowski's own, in the judicial process.

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