Big-Time, Even for Chicago

June 03, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- I think I'll ask my boss for a favor. I wonder if he'd mind if I reimburse myself out of the office expense account for stamps I never really purchased. Not just a few stamps. I'm talking about $10,000 or $20,000 worth of stamps.

Or maybe I'll ask my boss to pay, say, another $20,000 to a friend of mine who will then cash the check and split the money with me?

Or how about letting me have a half-dozen or so of the company pool cars for, say, the rest of my life? No down payment? No principal? No interest? No kidding?

Or how about letting me charge the company for about $80,000 in luggage, china and various gifts?

These are precisely the charges, among others, in a 17-count felony indictment, that Rep. Dan Rostenkowski has decided to fight. ''My conscience is clear,'' said the House Ways and Means chairman.

I wonder why Rosty didn't take the plea-bargaining deal. Even by the jaded standards of Chicago, even after two years of rumors and leaks, the charges read off by U.S. Attorney Eric Holder are breathtaking.

They allege a 20-year pattern of corruption -- charging taxpayers for stamps that were never purchased for mail that was never sent; tampering with a grand-jury witness who was allegedly asked to hush up about engraving 50 crystal sculptures of the U.S. Capitol that Mr. Rostenkowski gave to friends; hiring a future son-in-law, the photographer for his daughter's wedding and others to bogus jobs, at a cost to the taxpayers of $500,000.

Worse for Rosty than the seriousness of the charges is their simplicity. Bill and Hillary Clinton have survived Whitewater, and Ronald Rea- gan and George Bush survived Iran-contra, largely because few people understood the seriousness of the charges or even what the charges were. Mr. Rostenkowski's indictment is painfully intelligible. Talk radio will have a field day. Rosty's colleagues in Congress already are wincing in anticipation of voter retribution in November.

Pundits and politicians often complain that today's increasingly finicky standards of ethics discourage many bright people from public service. But there's nothing finicky about prohibiting hiring people for not working or getting reimbursed for stamps you never bought or receiving a complimentary fleet of cars.

Having reported on Mr. Rostenkowski for more than two decades in Chicago and Washington, I was not surprised when he announced he would fight the federal indictment. Rosty, a second-generation veteran of the city's Democratic machine, is a fighter. It's part of his appeal.

Educated elites are apprehensive of alley fighters like Rostenkowski. Official, genteel Washington stands in awe of Rosty. He stands 6 feet 2, weighs more than 200 pounds. He cuts deals. He browbeats. He cajoles. He eats red meat. He drinks Bombay gin, straight, with a couple of little teeny onions in it.

Back in Chicago, Rosty's world already was eroding. He barely squeaked to victory in 1992 against a no-name opponent who got 42 percent of the vote. He surprised the polls by winning more than 50 percent of the vote in the March Illinois primary, but only after President Clinton and various Cabinet members campaigned with him -- and after he acquired a helicopter from the Pentagon for Chicago's police department the day before the primary, an aircraft that locals immediately dubbed the ''pork chopper.''

Ah, but one man's pork is another man's porterhouse, as Mr. Rostenkowski must have learned at the knee of his alderman father, whom Chicago newspapers accused of similar ghost payrolling when Dan was a lad. Taxpayers will put up with a remarkable amount of fraud and abuse as long as they feel they're getting good service in return.

I learned soon after arriving in Chicago 25 years ago, fresh off the campus, that my political-science degree held not a candle to the street savvy of the average Chicago precinct captain. He sees two practical choices: Pristine ethics or getting things done.

''I don't worry about health care as the last thing I do when I go to bed these days,'' he told the Washington Post last fall. ''I think of, first of all, my image in the future: What are they going to say about Danny Rostenkowski? . . . It preys on me, but the fact of the matter is: I gotta get some things done.''

Now no one needs for him to get something done more than he does. He used to worry about his 35-year career going down in a cloud of postage stamps. Judging by the indictment, the last thing anyone can call him is a man of small ambitions.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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