Rostenkowski took fall for Congress gifts

Dan Rostenkowski sits in during a hearing on health care reform, June 9, 1994 on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/John Duricka)

August 11, 2010 3:21:17 PM PDT
With 18 terms in Congress under his belt, the late Dan Rostenkowski was once of the most powerful people in Washington.

Rostenkowski, 82, died at his Wisconsin home Wednesday morning. His legacy includes the reworking of the country's tax system and prison time for corruption.

"Sometimes one person gets singled out," Rostenkowski said in an interview. He, himself, was often singled out with his towering height and powerful position. His face defined the word 'gruff.'

In 1994, Rostenkowski was singled out by federal prosecutor Eric Holder, who is now U.S. attorney general.

"People are not sent to that institution up there to line their pockets and that's what we are saying he did," said Holder in 1994.

Rostenkowski was accused of lining his pockets by employing 14 ghost payrollers and cashing out stamp vouchers and congressional gifts, such as fine crystal and embossed rocking chairs. On the eve of trial, Rostenkowski took the fall, pleading to a pair of mail fraud counts that spared his family and staff a costly, public humiliation. He said what he did should have been a violation of House rules-- not a crime.

"Having plead guilty I do not believe I am any different than the vast majority of the members of Congress and their staffs, who have experienced enormous difficulties in determining whether particular services by congressional employees should be classified as Congressional, political or personal.," said Rostenkowski in 1994. Rostenkowski spent 17 months in prison.

"The difficulties in interpreting what's personal and official was the congressman's problem," said Dan Webb, former Chicago prosecutor who served as Rostenkowski's defense attorney, in 1994. The two remained friends.

In 2000, Rostenkowski was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

Webb spoke with ABC7 by phone from Atlanta on Wednesday.

"Chicago, in my judgment, has lost a great Chicagoan and a magnificent congressional leader," said Webb. "What happened to Danny regarding this postage stamp turned out to be a blip on the screen of his life."