Former House Sergeant-at-Arms Jack Russ, a powerful Capitol Hill figure who once ran the scandal-scarred House bank, was sentenced Friday to two years in prison for embezzlement, fraud and filing a false report.
U.S. District Judge Stanley Harris also ordered Russ, 48, to pay $445,000 to investors he bilked and to perform 250 hours of community service. He pleaded guilty to three felony counts in October.
Russ, who once counted senior members of Congress among his closest friends, was alone with his lawyer in the courtroom when sentence was pronounced. He showed no emotion and declined to say anything in his own behalf.
Asked by reporters for comment afterward, he snapped: “I’ve already said it.”
The judge rejected a plea by Russ’ lawyer for a shorter sentence, imposing instead a two-year term at the lower end of the Justice Department’s sentencing guidelines for similar cases.
“You’ve made mistakes. There’s nothing I can say to you that you haven’t said to yourself,” the judge told Russ. “Never again run afoul of the criminal justice system.”
Russ was supervisor of the House bank when it was disclosed that 355 current or former members of the House had written checks not covered by their balances. The revelation caused a political uproar that led to the closing of the bank and Russ’ resignation under fire early in 1992.
In many ways, Russ symbolized a free-and-easy way of doing business on Capitol Hill that was in effect when he started as a doorkeeper in 1967 and worked his way up the patronage ranks until he was elected House sergeant-at-arms in 1982.
Since his departure, House leaders have established a merit system for hiring for most jobs that once were under control of the majority party. They have also appointed professional administrators to run non-legislative services.
Russ pleaded guilty to embezzling $75,300 from the House bank by cashing 17 checks there when he knew that he did not have funds on deposit to cover them. Russ also admitted that he broke the law by defrauding investors of $445,000 and by filing a false report with Congress to conceal his financial misconduct.
The prosecutor also said that Russ took $13,000 from House gymnasium funds.
“Jack Russ stepped over a clear, criminal line when he chose to dip into the public till for his personal benefit,” federal prosecutor Johnathan Rausch told the court in opposing a leniency plea by Paul Knight, Russ’ attorney.
Knight, however, pictured Russ as playing a “rather minimal role” in the House bank, adding: “Mr. Russ’ conduct did not in any way reduce confidence in the House of Representatives.”
He pictured Russ’ attempt to set up his own business, making and selling flag cases, as a “financial disaster” that caused him to get ever deeper in debt and divert investors’ funds to his personal use.
In urging the judge to impose only a 10-month prison sentence on Russ, his lawyer said that widespread news coverage of Russ’ guilty plea was a far worse punishment than confinement would be.
But the prosecutors painted a different picture, describing Russ as “a public official who has repeatedly abused his public and private trust” to buy a $400,000 townhouse on Capitol Hill and to pay personal expenses.
“Mr. Russ literally spent the money as fast as he could take it in,” Rausch said.