Rosty indictment hardly overkill

June 07, 1994

"There but for the grace of God, virtually the entire Congress of the United States walks in Dan Rostenkowski's shoes. For mixed among the serious charges -- like witness tampering -- were some all-too-common congressional practices."

So wrote a New York journalist, who then quoted an aide to "a leading straight-arrow Democratic" representative as saying: "Holder indicted an entire era, not a man. Maybe the entire era should be indicted -- but to pursue some of those things as felonies is just overkill. Putting people on the payroll, giving souvenirs was part of the culture here and people did it automatically. It was nowhere near the evil thing it has been portrayed."

Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, says only a few members of Congress do what he says Representative Rostenkowski did. And the alleged acts are, if not "evil," surely corrupt and criminal. It is by no means "overkill" to treat them as felonies. After all, if the indictment is true -- and remember, it may not be in whole or even in part -- the people Representative Rostenkowski was "putting on the payroll" and the "souvenirs" and so forth all added up to nearly 700,000 taxpayer dollars for unofficial purposes.

The argument that everybody indulges in a little graft is an old one. We have heard it plenty of times in Maryland. Our state was once notorious for its grafters. They liked to claim that all they were doing was playing politics as usual. Vice President Spiro Agnew, for example, when he was caught having taken money in exchange for official acts during his tenure as Baltimore County executive and governor, said he was only following "a long, established pattern."

Mr. Agnew, it is worth remembering, was a Republican and was exposed by a Republican U.S. attorney, George Beall (now a lawyer in private practice here). Eric Holder, a Democrat, was appointed by President Clinton to be the U.S. attorney in D.C. He, like Mr. Beall, let partisanship play no role in carrying out his duties.

There are times when a special prosecutor is needed to deal with sensitive criminal cases involving politicians, but as the indictment of Representative Rostenkowski proves once again, most of the time U.S. attorneys can be thoroughly professional and non-political. Not to mention successful. According to the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, there were 1,176 indictments brought against public officials in 1990, and there were 1,084 convictions.

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