How Rosty Could Beat The Rap

Let's face it: Dan Rostenkowski brought the cheap and arrogant values of a Chicago chiseler to Washington. At a minimum, he seems to have treated taxpayer money as his personal petty-cash fund. But Rosty, who last week hired fellow Chicagoan Dan K. Webb as his new lawyer, could still beat the rap. With the help of a few prominent criminal-defense attorneys unconnected to the case, here's how the defense's opening argument might go:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:

The case you will hear has taken years to come to trial. But if 1994 seems like ancient history, consider that much of the government's case dates to the early 1970s, almost a quarter century ago. How could the statutes of limitations not have expired on charges about someone cutting grass in 1976 or photographing a wedding in 1977? In fact, they did expire, but the prosecutors -- desperate to prove to Republicans that they were not going easy on Mr. Rostenkowski -- invoked federal conspiracy statutes that keep these stale charges alive. They believe this gives them license to take anything -- anything! -- in someone's life and make it part of a ""scheme.'' That's the government's entire case. No conspiracy, no conviction.

Clearly, there was no such conspiracy, and the only ""scheme'' is the effort to send to jail a fine man who has served his country selflessly for nearly 40 years. The fact is, if he were not so powerful, this case would never have been brought. Mr. Rostenkowski is a victim as surely as Lorena Bobbitt or the Menendez brothers, and he never hurt anyone. He is a victim of his own success.

This case is first and foremost about the character of one man. So you will hear character witnesses of all stripes: from the highest reaches of government and the Catholic Church, from his friends in the African-American community, from the working-class Chicago neighbors who know him best. And finally from Danny Rostenkowski himself. He has nothing to hide. He will take the stand in his own defense and tell you the truth. He will admit some mistakes, of course. He will tell you he was a poor manager and that he allowed sloppy bookkeeping. And he will tell you a little about what life is like when you are running a large chunk of the U.S. government.

Ladies and gentlemen, do you really believe this man sat in his office and determined who would be hired to do typing and how much they would be paid? Do you think he picked out every gift and reviewed the title of every car? Between meeting with the president and visiting heads of state, while rewriting the entire U.S. tax code so fat cats can no longer hide their billions in tax shelters, was the chairman really hanging around the House Post Office, counting change?

Tried individually, the particular counts would be laughed out of court. Lumped together, they create a totally distorted impression. Take the so-called ghost workers that the prosecution will cite. These no-show employees are said to have cost the taxpayers $500,000. But that's over 21 years. Almost none of the 14 people received more than a few thousand dollars annually. Most will testify that they did real office work for their small pay. The indictment says they performed ""little or no work.'' What does ""little'' work mean? Should a man go to jail for quibbling over that definition? The prosecutors have proof of nothing. Even the indictment states that ""it was not possible to tell from any House records exactly who really was or was not working for defendant Rostenkowski during any given month.'' That's poor record-keeping, not the work of a felon.

The charge that the chairman traded stamps for cash will rest on the testimony of one Robert Rota, the former House postmaster. But Rota denied three times in the past that any such transaction with Mr. Rostenkowski ever took place. Why should you believe him now?

The only men who understood the congressman's complex auto leases were the owner of the car dealership and the campaign chairman who arranged the deal. Both are dead, so there will be no informed testimony on this matter. And the indictment's contention that the cars were ""used seldom if ever for official purposes'' is preposterous. As you will learn in this case, Dan Rostenkowski lives and breathes politics. Everything he does during day and evening hours is connected to official duties. This point was made some years ago in winning an acquittal for former Illinois governor William Stratton. We will make it again.

As for the gifts from the House stationery store, the congressman has already said that he misunderstood House rules and he provided full reimbursement. He is hardly the first member of Congress to use office funds to buy gifts. The prosecution believes it has a witness who will testify to obstruction of justice in this matter, but it is mistaken. That witness, an engraver, will provide testimony favorable to the defense.

Ladies and gentlemen, sorting out the tangled bookkeeping rules and regulations on this and all the other charges is a matter for the House of Representatives, not the courts. Our over-crowded jails should be reserved for the violent and the corrupt, not the victimized and the careless. After you've listened to the evidence, you will find the defendant not guilty on all counts.

Nice try, fellas. The rules of evidence heavily favor the prosecution in federal cases, and the mostly black juries in the District of Columbia tend to be unforgiving. Rosty's odds of full acquittal can be rated at one in five at best. Even if some jurors want to acquit, they may compromise by convicting on at least a few of the 17 counts. That still means jail time and no expressway in Chicago named for him. On the other hand, if he takes his case to the talk shows, there might yet be a Dan Rostenkowski Sewage Treatment Plant.