Dan Rostenkowski, the once-powerful Illinois Democratic congressman who now is out of money, out of work and shorn of his power, ended his four-year legal ordeal Tuesday by formally accepting a plea agreement substantially harsher than a deal he once spurned.
Standing before U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee quietly pleaded guilty to two felonies to settle charges that he had engaged in a pattern of corrupt activities spanning three decades. He received a 17-month prison term and was fined $100,000 under terms of the negotiated plea.
In subdued tones, the 18-term former congressman replied “guilty” twice when asked how he pleaded to charges that he had misappropriated funds from his official expense accounts and from the House post office.
Rostenkowski, 68, was facing trial next month on charges that he stole more than $640,000 in government funds in a series of schemes, including the hiring of “ghost employees” who gave him kickbacks, converting for personal use House post office funds intended to pay for official mailings and spending official funds on personal gifts for friends and family members.
The “ghost employee” scheme involved nonworking persons whom Rostenkowski put on his payroll simply so that they could pay him a portion of their salaries, as well as some employees whose only duties were to mow the lawn at his Chicago home or perform other personal chores.
Under federal investigation since 1992, Rostenkowski turned down a plea agreement on the eve of his indictment in May 1994. Negotiated by Washington defense attorney Robert S. Bennett, whom Rostenkowski dismissed after rejecting the offer, the deal would have required him to resign from office and serve a six-month prison sentence, according to legal sources.
But Rostenkowski balked at voluntarily ending his 36-year congressional career and confidently vowed that he would clear his name. He retained Dan K. Webb, a former federal prosecutor from his hometown of Chicago, to help him fight the charges.
The case, however, dragged on as Webb mounted a protracted legal challenge to the constitutionality of the charges. He argued that Congress reserved the right to judge the financial conduct of its members without interference from the executive branch of government.
Appellate judges for the most part ruled against Rostenkowski’s arguments, although Johnson eventually dismissed four of 17 original charges against him.
While the legal challenges kept Rostenkowski from going on trial, they cost him dearly in legal fees. And the cloud that hung over his head resulted in his defeat in 1994 by a political unknown, Republican Michael Patrick Flanagan.
Out of office and under indictment, the man who once was feted by trade associations, special-interest groups and lobbyists for the nation’s largest corporations complained that he could not find part-time work to pay his mounting legal bills.
Rostenkowski, supporting himself mainly on his congressional pension of $96,000 a year, told reporters last year that he had outstanding legal costs of $300,000 to $400,000 and “I don’t think I have enough to cover it.”
He previously used $353,824 in campaign funds to pay his lawyers, in addition to more than $70,000 from a legal defense fund he had established while in Congress.
Webb said Tuesday that Rostenkowski “has exhausted his financial resources.” Judge Johnson interrupted to tell the defendant that “you violated the trust of your own constituents.”