Court clears way for trial of Pa. congressman

June 16, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court cleared the way yesterday for a trial of 2-year-old bribery charges against a high-ranking Republican member of the House, and in the process gave federal prosecutors added authority to probe possible crimes by congressional leaders.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia refused to throw out five criminal charges against Rep. Joseph M. McDade Jr., of Clarks Summit, Pa. -- the top-ranking GOP member of the House Appropriations Committee and its Pentagon funding subcommittee.

Some parts of the ruling appear to bear upon the broad claim of immunity that another key member of Congress, former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat,is expected to make to charges of 17 crimes of fraud and embezzlement.

Mr. Rostenkowski, like Mr. McDade, will seek to defend himself against some or all of the criminal charges on the theory that prosecutors have dug too deeply into what a member does as a legislator in order to find evidence of crimes.

Under the Constitution, members are granted immunity for any "speech or debate" they make as part of their legislative duties -- a phrase that has been extended beyond actual legislative remarks.

Mr. McDade, a 15-term veteran in the House, had contended that the grand jury indictment against him is based heavily on his actions as a committee leader, in violation of the Constitution's promise of immunity.

His claim had been supported in the Circuit Court by House leaders of both parties. They argued that some parts of the indictment threatened Congress' independence from executive branch prosecutors, and threatened Congress' ability to oversee executive agency actions.

Mr. McDade is accused of taking money and other favors from defense contractors who allegedly hoped to capitalize on his positions to gain favors, either with Congress or with the Pentagon. Mr. McDade's committee roles figure in charges that he used his status as part of criminal "racketeering."

The three-judge panel of the Circuit Court ruled, however, that congressional immunity does not become stronger simply because a member of Congress attains some leadership position. Prosecutors, in seeking criminal charges for crimes like bribery or other financial misdeeds, may link those charges to a member's status on a committee or as a committee leader, the Circuit Court declared.

Prosecutors may not probe into the legality of what the committee itself does, but they may pursue charges if they have evidence that a committee member used that position for personal financial gain, the panel said.

The Circuit Court ruling appears to conflict with a ruling by another federal appeals court two years ago, implying in a Georgia congressman's case that prosecutors are forbidden by the Constitution to use legislative status or committee position as evidence in a criminal prosecution.

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