Prodded by the Justice Department, a federal grand jury has thrown the book at Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. Guided by U.S. Atty. Eric H. Holder Jr., the panel handed down 17 felony counts. The charges allege the congressman padded his office payroll, cashed in postage stamp vouchers and took huge liberties with his office expenses and campaign contributions. About $500,000 in taxpayers' funds allegedly were misappropriated. It is also charged that the Illinois Democrat instructed a House employee to withhold information from authorities.
Of course, Rostenkowski is innocent until proven guilty. A trial is expected, although perhaps not for a year or two. Two years ago Rep. Joseph McDade, a Pennsylvania Republican, was indicted on bribery charges. That case has not gone to trial, and, in an embarrassment to his party, McDade continues to serve as the ranking minority member of the important House Appropriations Committee.
While Rostenkowski awaits his day in court, he can no longer be chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. House Democratic Caucus rules appropriately require members who are indicted to step down from leadership posts until they are cleared. Rostenkowski's loss of a chairmanship, even if only temporary, could hurt the Clinton Administration's push to pass health care reform. Rostenkowski was in a key position to help and had the know-how, clout and political chits to deliver for President Clinton.
Fortunately, the political calculus didn't result in a lethargic prosecution. Holder, a Democrat appointed by Clinton last year, strengthened a case initiated by a Republican prosecutor, Jay B. Stephens. Stephens had vigorously investigated corruption at the House Post Office, and had suggested that the Clinton Administration forced him to resign to stall the Rostenkowski probe.
To the contrary, and despite the political consequences, the U.S. attorney's office has targeted a man who could have been a key to the Clinton agenda. This display of independence should restore some credibility to a Justice Department tarnished during the previous two administrations by repeated allegations of political meddling.