Rostenkowski Reeling

No man has ever grown more in Congress," former House speaker Tip O'Neill once said of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. As rumors of indictment swarm over the powerful congressman, the accuracy of O'Neill's assessment is directly at issue. Rostenkowski was reared in a Chicago political culture where petty corruption was a way of life. The U.S. House to which he was elected in 1958 was no Sunday school either. The practice of exchanging extra stamps for "going home" pocket money--the core of the current allegations against Rostenkowski--was legal and not uncommon as recently as the early 1970s. After Watergate, standards changed. The question is, did Rosty change, too? Or did his comfort in that beefy world of backslaps and knowing winks, of loose cash and patronage hacks, take him over the line?

Either way, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee took one in the gut last week. just as he sat down with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to structure the big House-Senate budget compromise, a former House postmaster named Robert V. Rota pleaded guilty to embezzlement and conspiracy charges. alleging that he helped "Congressman A" (identified as Rostenkowski) steal at least $21,000 over six years. The congressman may also be charged with improperly cashing campaign contributions at the House post office, among other offenses. Although Rostenkowski defiantly attacked the allegations as "unfair, false, baseless," Rota's guilty plea sharply increased the odds of an indictment within a few weeks and a showy criminal trial that will take the whole institution of Congress down several more notches, if that's possible.

A furious House Speaker Tom Foley pounded the table in his chambers, defending the integrity of his colleague. And Foley had his own, less serious embarrassment: reports that he made $100,000 in profits when his broker bought initial public offerings of stocks not usually available to ordinary investors. NEWSWEEK has learned that while the speaker broke no rules, he will now put his holdings in a blind trust.

Also last week, the Chicago Sun-Times published an interview with a Rota subordinate, James C. Smith, a patronage worker who owed his job to Rostenkowski and will likely be a second major witness against him. According to Smith, the stamps rarely changed hands. Rostenkowski simply signed an expense-account voucher for stamps that Smith converted into cash. The first time he says he witnessed the alleged scheme, in 1989, "I was no doubt taken aback when I saw his [Rostenkowski's] name on the [$2,0001 voucher. I couldn't believe it was him."

Most Democrats on Capitol Hill still can't believe it's him. They whisper that an aide must have signed his name. And beyond condemning press and prosecutors for frying him publicly before he has even been formally charged, the pro-Rostenkowski forces point to the amounts of money allegedly involved. If Rostenkowski was greedy, the logic goes, he would have taken advantage of a loophole that allowed longtime members of Congress retiring in 1992 to keep their accumulated campaign funds for their own personal use. ln Rostenkowski's case, that figure was more than $1 million, which he forfeited by running for re-election.

This argument ignores the history of Chicago politics. Former alderman Dick Simpson, a reformer who lost to Rostenkowski in 1992, points out that 15 of the last 18 Chicago aldermen sent to jail have been convicted of accepting bribes of less than $1,000. "The style has always been to steal in little increments," Simpson says. "And Rostenkowski's pattern is that of a Chicago ward boss in Congress."

Rostenkowski's chiseling isn't in dispute. For years he has accepted steak dinners and golf junkets from lobbyists with business before the Ways and Means Committee, an eyebrow-raising but legal practice for which he makes no apologies. He's used campaign funds for cars, insurance, even hundreds of golf sweaters for friends. Old fashioned nepotism is second nature: his sisters turned out to be the landlords for both campaign and district-office headquarters in Chicago; two of his daughters, the Chicago Tribune reported last week, were put on the Chicago Board of Trade payroll by a crony at the same time they were employed as airline-flight attendants.

No one on the Rostenkowski side is talking about his defense, but the outlines are emerging. Rota, who is not charged with taking any cash for himself, and Smith will no doubt be portrayed as sycophantic small fry trying to save their skins. Rota will be depicted as a liar (he earlier denied improprieties); Smith is being described by a Rostenkowski aide as an eccentric who stored cash in a pea package in his refrigerator. Perhaps the biggest mystery is what Rostenkowski's longtime assistant, Virginia Fletcher, told the grand jury.

The politics of the Rostenkowski case are especially bitter. The Democrats point out that former U.S. attorney Jay Stephens, the Republican who initiated the probe, is now riding an anti-Congress theme in his race against Oliver North for a Virginia Senate seat. Even some of Stephens's old colleagues at the Justice Department believe it was highly inappropriate for him to go on "Nightline" last week to speculate about Rostenkowski's indictment.

Stephens alleges that the Clinton administration bought Rostenkowski (and itself) time by firing him as U.S. attorney last spring. But the evidence isn't there. The attorney general replaced 91 other U.S. attorneys at the same time as Stephens, which is standard operating procedure in a new administration.

For all of the hand-wringing, the loss of Rostenkowski wouldn't by itself deal a grievous blow to the Clinton program. The budget, due to be voted on soon, will likely be completed before any possible indictment. And that is the last major tax legislation (Rostenkowski's specialty) expected for several years. Although his clout would help President Clinton on health-care and other bills, it isn't indispensable. Both Rep. Sam Gibbons and Rep. Charles Rangel, the two candidates to replace him, would be far weaker chairmen. But Majority Leader Richard Gephardt might be brought on to the committee to add party discipline.

All the same, the demise of Danny Rostenkowski would mark a major passage. He's a test for everything we believe about regulars versus reformers, arm-twisters versus policy wonks, steak and Scotch versus salad and Saratoga.