PERSONALITY IN THE NEWS : Patronage System May Fall With Russ : Capitol: House bank manager climbed with the help of some powerful friends. Lawmakers call for reform, cite need for experienced professionals.


The decline and fall of Jack Russ, the House sergeant-at-arms who mismanaged the House bank, may turn out to be a symbol for the gradual erosion of an old regime in Congress and the birth of a new meritocracy.

By any yardstick in the private sector, the 46-year-old Russ--who resigned Thursday night--lacked the qualifications to carry out his duties as head of the House bank. Nor did he have any training to be supervisor of the 1,250-member Capitol Police force, charged with assuring the physical security of House buildings.

But in his 25 years in Washington, he developed friendships with powerful people, and his ascent through the capital's patronage system is a familiar path in Congress.

Now that the bank doors have been slammed shut after thousands of bad checks went through without penalty, House leaders have started talking about the need for experienced managers to run the congressional bureaucracy. This time, they seem to be serious, and the political climate is demanding some far-reaching reforms. House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) has proposed abolishing the official posts of House doorkeeper and sergeant-at-arms and hiring a top executive and law enforcement professional to replace them.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and other Democrats want to hire a chief administrator for the sprawling House work force, now numbering more than 13,000 people, while others favor a chief financial officer to oversee the legislative support staff.

If demands for reform grow loud enough and the inclination in Congress to respond grows strong enough, the path that Russ took to the job of sergeant-at-arms will be far different from that of his successor.

Russ finished two years of junior college, then played football for two years at the University of Southern Mississippi but never graduated.

On a tourist trip to Washington in 1967, he got a job in the office of Rep. William Colmer (D-Miss.), his congressman and a family friend.

He became a doorman, befriending influential members in a job that exposed him to powerful Democrats. He advanced to chief page, and, four years later, thanks to his handsome good looks and influential patrons, he moved up to deputy doorkeeper. When a vacancy occurred for the sergeant-at-arms post in 1983, Russ had enough political chips to get the job.

The $115,000-a-year post required him to supervise the House bank, but Russ delegated most of those duties to a subordinate and focused on his responsibilities of providing security for House members and protecting visiting dignitaries.

In the good-ol'-boy atmosphere of Capitol Hill, Russ got into trouble by cashing 19 bad checks totaling $56,100 during a 13-month period at the bank he was supposed to manage. He made good on the overdrafts and promised never to use the bank again.

On March 1, he was involved in a mysterious shooting episode near his Capitol Hill home. Russ reported to police that he was robbed and then shot through the cheek by an unknown assailant as he was walking his dog in a darkened park. When there was whispered speculation that the wound might have been self-inflicted, Russ angrily denied the suggestion in an interview with Cable News Network.

Russ contends that the bank system was one he inherited when he became sergeant-at-arms. He said efforts he made last fall to make some changes in the system that allowed members of Congress to have free overdraft protection were rebuffed.

But the House Ethics Committee, in its probe of the House bank, found that it was Foley who repeatedly demanded reforms to eliminate overdrafts and that Russ carried out the request in a "half-hearted and untimely manner."

He resigned minutes before the House began debating whether to disclose the names of all lawmakers who wrote bad checks.

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