The Nation : Rosty: On Not Going Down for the Count

Ben Joravsky, a staff writer for the Chicago Reader, is the author of "Race and Politics in Chicago" (CRS Press)

Until recently, I've been complacent about the controversy embroiling Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.). It wasn't compelling, it lacked the drama, the flair--the sweaty snitch es secretly taping illegal back-room transactions--of other political corruption cases I'd seen. Even the early allegations about bilking the congressional post office seemed tepid and dull.

Then, on Tuesday, the feds finally revealed their case, and my attitude changed. Let me tell you, I've seen a lot of corruption, and this one is no piker. They've charged Rostenkowski with 17 felony counts, alleging embezzlement, fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. In addition to the post-office machinations, they say he took kickbacks from ghost employees. That he used government money to pay a photographer to shoot family functions. That he took personal ownership of cars, bought with taxpayer funds, from a dealership managed by his campaign chairman's brother. That he improperly billed taxpayers for chairs, luggage and china he then distributed as gifts to lobbyists and friends. It goes on and on.

While no fan of Rostenkowski, I now find myself surprisingly moved by his mighty fall and strangely overtaken by territorial impulses. He was, after all, my man in Congress. His house is not far from mine. I once bumped into him on the street and he clapped me on the back and called me "pal." From time to time, I'd see him with his cronies, dining at the kind of steak joints where they pile huge hunks of meat on your plate. Rostenkowski, as I recall, favored ketchup on his steak.

I figure, who the heck are these prosecutors in Washington--these snooty Ivy League yuppies--to tell me who my congressman can be? I feel like one of those Yellow Dog party loyalists, who keeps returning the same old bums, rascals and felons to office.

The local papers have been going wild with some of the stranger details of this sordid saga. There was a story about lavish theme parties--including a Western night, featuring a real chuck wagon--that Rostenkowski threw at taxpayers' expense. They ran a photo of one of the alleged ghost employees--a haggard-looking, elderly lady named Sophie, her body bent with age, who used to baby-sit for Rostenkowski's daughters. She probably doesn't know what's hit her.

Rostenkowski denies all charges--which doesn't surprise me. Most politicians say they never did it, until after their conviction, when, pleading for leniency, they promise never to do it again.

Either that or they attack their accusers. Huey P. Long, the legendary governor and later U.S. senator from Louisiana, mastered this trick. He headed off one impeachment movement by accusing his accusers of being henchmen for Big Oil, inciting such passions that debate turned to fisticuffs and one legislator, standing on a desk to escape the fray, got hit by the blade of a ceiling fan.

Personally, I prefer the approach of James Michael Curley, the former mayor of Boston and governor of Massachusetts. During his 50 years in politics, he served two sentences in jail. In each case, his attitude was, "Yeah, I did it. So what." He apologized for nothing and even titled his autobiography, "I'd Do It Again." Curley defined himself as a "friend to the little man." I guess he figured most little men would forgive anything--even corruption--as long as they got theirs.

Other politicians choose to work through their indictments--the way great athletes play through pain. So it was with Rep. Daniel J. Flood. Few people today remember Flood, and that's a shame. In his time, he was almost as powerful as Rostenkowski.

Flood was known as "Dapper Dan"--a sartorial dandy with a waxed mustache, who represented a blue-collar district in rural Pennsylvania. During the 1960s and '70s, Flood chaired the House appropriations subcommittee, which controlled billions of dollars in anti-poverty funds. That meant roads, schools, hospitals, bridges and airports for the folks back home. Widows and orphans, his obituary said, hailed Flood as their hero.

Flood spent roughly the last 10 years of his career fending off various charges of corruption, which no one in his home district seemed evenly remotely concerned with. The feds finally indicted him on bribery charges, but one of 12 jurors dissented and the case ended in a mistrial. Prosecutors made noises about jury tampering, but they couldn't prove a thing.

Flood must have had a good lawyer to beat that rap. The same can't be said about Rostenkowski, who's apparently fired his famous, high-profile lawyer, Robert S. Bennett. It seems indicted politicians and their lawyers rarely get along--one is usually accusing the other of screwing up the case.

A few years back, we had a Democratic political operative here by the name of Howard Medley. He was a self-made millionaire who came to Chicago from some small town in Arkansas and became a consummate back-room wheeler-dealer. One day, he showed me his little black book containing the home and work phone numbers of every major politician in town. "I'm Medley," he told me. "And Medley's the man."

Poor Medley; he got caught up in some sleazy bribery scheme. His lawyer's strategy was to cast Medley as the unschooled country hick taken in by city slickers. Medly wanted none of that. He didn't want to admit that there was a man alive smart enough to fool Medley. He replaced the first lawyer with a more pliable chap, wound up losing his case and serving time.

To this day, Medley probably curses both those lawyers. In that regard, he's probably a lot like John Gotti, head of New York's notorious Gambino crime family, who, it seems, never has a good word to say about any of his lawyers. He's called them "rats" and "imbeciles" and even threatened to throw one out a window.

Through it all, they remained loyal. One of them, Michael Coiro, even went to jail for helping conceal the profits from a heroin deal hatched by a Gambino mobster. After his conviction, while awaiting sentencing, Coiro met with Gotti at the infamous Ravenite Social Club, the gang's favorite gathering place, where hidden FBI bugs taped their conversation.

"I think (the judge's) gonna give you 10 years," Gotti said. "Maybe look for you to do three or four."

"I'll do it, John." Coiro replied.

Now that's loyalty. Can you imagine Bennett serving time for Rostenkowski? Fat chance. According to the papers, he wanted Rostenkowski to plead guilty to lesser corruption charges, give up his seat and spend a few months in jail. You call that a deal? If I were a lawyer, I'd be ashamed to bill my client.

I say Rostenkowski should hire one of those down-and-dirty lawyers who loves a court-room fight. That lawyer should paint the prosecutors as a bunch of snooty Ivy Leaguers who despise Rostenkowski because he's coarse and crude and pours ketchup on his steak. And he should call Sophie to the stand, so she can testify about all the wonderful things Rostenkowski has done for her and all the little people of Chicago's near northwest side. There wouldn't be a dry eye in the jury.

After the acquittal, I'm sure the lawyer would get invited to join Rostenkowski and his cronies for a celebratory meal. They'd probably buy him a huge hunk of meat--with a little ketchup on the side.*

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