Rostenkowski pleads guilty to mail fraud Chicago Democrat receives sentence of 17 months in prison

April 10, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Saying he had behaved no differently from most other members of Congress, former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to two charges of mail fraud yesterday and agreed to begin serving a 17-month prison sentence in 30 days.

Rostenkowski, a Chicago Democrat who will become the most prominent lawmaker ever to go to prison for official corruption, stood dry-eyed, his arms folded across his chest, as Judge Norma H. Johnson of the U.S. District Court in Washington lectured him and imposed the sentence that the former congressman's lawyers had negotiated with federal prosecutors.

"When I think of your case," Judge Johnson said, "the one phrase that comes to my mind is betrayal of trust."

But after the 45-minute hearing, Rostenkowski, who served 36 years in Congress and was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee through the 1980s and early 1990s, stood hatless in the rain outside the courthouse and denied serious wrongdoing.

One charge to which he pleaded guilty involved sending official payroll checks from his office in Washington to his office in Chicago to pay employees who did no official work but did personal services for him.

"I do not believe," Rostenkowski said, "that I am any different than the vast majority of the members of Congress and their staffs who have experienced enormous difficulty in determining whether particular services by congressional employees should be classified as congressional, political or personal."

The other charge in his guilty plea had to do with an official check he mailed to buy, through the House stationery store, a piece of china that he intended as a personal gift.

"This was a practice that had become well accepted within the United States House of Representatives," Rostenkowski said.

This was the first time since he was indicted on charges of corruption two years ago that he had publicly addressed the specific charges against him.

Rostenkowski insisted that he had not committed the other crimes listed in the 13-count indictment, including embezzlement from the House post office, using his official expense account to buy cars for his personal use and obstructing justice.

Those charges were dismissed by the prosecutors as part of the plea agreement. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Motley said in court that the prosecutors would have proved them had the case gone to trial. A trial was scheduled to begin May 15.

Before Rostenkowski was indicted in 1994, the prosecutors offered him the opportunity to resign, plead guilty to one felony and serve six months in prison. He rejected that offer and vowed to fight the charges. Later that year, he was defeated for re-election by Michael P. Flanagan, a Republican.

Yesterday, Rostenkowski, 68, said he had decided to enter the plea agreement after Robert Russo, a man who used to clean his office, was sentenced to 10 months in prison for lying to a grand jury investigating the Rostenkowski case. Russo was sentenced in February by Judge Johnson.

"After I learned of the jail sentence imposed upon my dear friend Robert Russo," Rostenkowski said, "I realized that I could not put my family, my former congressional employees and my many friends and supporters in Chicago through the trauma and agony of a trial in Washington."

Rostenkowski's lawyer, Dan K. Webb, asked Judge Johnson to allow the sentence to be served at the Oxford Federal Penitentiary in Wisconsin, saying it was the closest suitable federal prison to Chicago. The judge said she would recommend that to the Bureau of Prisons.

The sentence also requires Rostenkowski to pay $100,000 in fines and restitution; he will be credited for about $82,000 he has already paid in restitution to the House stationery store.

Mr. Webb said in court that Rostenkowski's large legal fees had "exhausted his financial resources."

Rostenkowski, who had a guiding hand in almost all the important tax and social legislation of the past 15 years, was somber in court, replying in a hoarse whisper "Yes, your honor" and "No, ma'am," to the questions put to him by Judge Johnson.

Outside the courthouse, the rain rolling off his face and soaking the sheet from which he was reading his statement, he was almost combative.

"I personally have come to accept the fact that sometimes one person gets singled out, to be held up by law enforcement as an example," Rostenkowski said. "I simply have to accept that and move forward with my life."

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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