WASHINGTON — Lawyers for Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, seeking to head off a felony indictment of the Illinois Democrat, are meeting with high-ranking Justice Department officials, sources knowledgeable about the case said Wednesday night.
One such meeting with Assistant Atty. Gen. Jo Ann Harris, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, was called off earlier Wednesday, but sessions between the two sides signal that a decision on the Rostenkowski case is imminent.
Prosecutors have been investigating allegations that Rostenkowski was involved in schemes to misuse public funds. Specifically, prosecutors are trying to determine whether the House post office converted massive amounts of stamps, purchased with office funds, into cash for Rostenkowski's personal use.
They are also investigating allegations that public money was spent on goods from the House stationery store that were for Rostenkowski's personal or campaign use and that his office payroll included improper transactions.
If indicted on felony charges, Rostenkowski would be forced to resign as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a move that would be a serious blow to President Clinton's health care reform effort. The Administration has been counting on Rostenkowski, a Clinton ally, to help steer the health care legislation through the House.
If the Chicago lawmaker is charged with a misdemeanor, he could continue as chairman, at least for a time. He would, however, be subject to possible censure by his House colleagues.
The discussions between the federal officials and Rostenkowski's attorney, Robert S. Bennett, are in keeping with a Justice Department tradition. In investigations involving public figures, the department customarily gives defense attorneys the opportunity to present arguments to criminal division officials about why their client should not be indicted.
The procedure, which is available to other prospective defendants as well, aids the government by giving prosecutors and their superiors the opportunity to examine potential weak spots in their case, which they can then strengthen before it goes to a grand jury.
Such meetings have also led to government decisions not to bring charges or to file lesser charges than originally intended.
The discussions can also result in plea bargaining, during which defense attorneys seek as a last resort to persuade the government to file lesser charges--a misdemeanor instead of a felony, for example.
Bennett, one of Washington's most prominent criminal lawyers, is also representing Clinton in the sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by former Arkansas state employee Paula Corbin Jones.