Betrayal of trust Rostenkowski convicted: Powerful congressman gets 17 months on corruption charges.

April 11, 1996

MEMBERS OF CONGRESS will not appreciate former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski's almost-everyone-does-it defense of his conviction on corruption charges. The Chicago ward heeler who rose to be the always "powerful" chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee is going to federal prison for 17 months. But he goes still defiant, still refusing to accept the court's judgment that he is guilty of "a betrayal of trust."

Federal prospectors insist they had an air-tight case against Rostenkowski for old-time boodling: kickbacks, slush funds, phantom employees, postal stamps for cash, personal services from government workers, taxpayer-funded gifts for friends and family. He pleaded guilty only to the least damning of the counts against him, as if that makes any difference.

Consider his attempt at exculpation: "I do not believe 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."

As one Chicago pol said, "the times changed but Danny didn't." Practices rampant when Rostenkowski was first elected in 1958 have fallen into disfavor. A Maryland friend labeled his statement "untrue" and "unfortunate," saying Rostenkowski had "a different concept of what is ethically permissible" than most lawmakers.

Nevertheless, voters should take note of Rostenkowski's difficulty in distinguishing between "congressional, political and personal" activities. Most legislators today are overwhelmed by pressures to raise money, perform constituent services, keep abreast of a flood of legislation, visit the home district and deal with legions of special interests. Transgression, deliberate or inadvertent, is a constant menace.

Rostenkowski's downfall has deprived Congress of a mover and shaker. He was a driving force in 1986 tax reform legislation, the North American Free Trade Agreement and President Clinton's 1993 deficit-reduction package. Landmark health care reform collapsed coincidentally with Rostenkowski's troubles.

This tough old Chicagoan cannot bring himself to admit he done wrong. But wrong he done, and his disgrace stands as an object lesson to all public officials, present and future.

Pub Date: 4/11/96

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