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The [Rosty] Papers

When I heard the news of Dan Rostenkowski's death, I couldn't help but flash in my mind upon the scene the night he lost his re-election bid in 1994 when I was in office of then associate managing editor Gerry Kern - now the Tribune's editor-in-chief - along with a gaggle of other reporters discussing the coverage we were preparing.

I was there because - though I had just been told days before that the paper wouldn't be retaining my services when my reporting residency ended - I was asked to join the small team otherwise composed of Tribune veterans that was covering what would turn out to be pretty historic midterms.

The election had just been called in favor of Rostenkowski's opponent, the inestimable Michael Patrick Flanagan. Tribune bigwigs were aghast - as if nobody saw this coming.

"Oh, Rosty!" political reporter Dorothy Collin exclaimed. I almost offered her a hanky.

When I mentioned the unmentionable - that nobody should have been that surprised seeing as how he was under indictment - Kern threw me a sharp look and said "Some people think the charges are chickenshit," or something very close to that. I was appalled. I didn't know the paper's official stance was that Rosty was getting rooked.

I quickly figured out that I was probably the only one in the room who read America: What Went Wrong by two of my reporting heroes, Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele.

Barlett and Steele do something very curious as reporters investigating topics such as tax policy: They actually read the laws our legislators pass. You can say you are the defender of the middle-class and you just passed tax relief for them, but that doesn't make it true. Barlett and Steele found that, in Rosty's case, the actual legislation made it a lie. To the hilt.

I was glad, then, to see Whet Moser refer to Barlett and Steele's work even as the mainstream media - and the so-called experts they rely on time and time again despite the amazing consistency with which they get things wrong - largely remain in the dark.

"Rostenkowski Remembered For Fighting For 'Regular People,'" the Tribune reports.

Well, just because he's remembered that way - and gee, I wonder where people got that idea - doesn't make it true. Indeed, it's not even close.

In his famous Harper's magazine essay on corruption in the Illinois legislature, Paul Simon noted that a group of influential lawmakers owned stock in the horse racing industry that they routinely rewarded with special favors. Rostenkowski was one of those lawmakers. And so it went on for the whole of his career. But he told great stories.

* * *

"There are two different minds on the matter of Dan Rostenkowski," Tribune editorial page editor Bruce Dold wrote in 1996 (the Trib reposted the piece Wednesday night). "One belongs to politicians and the news media. The other belongs to everybody else in the world. That should worry people in my business."

The irony, of course, is that it should have been the media telling people the truth about Dan Rostenkowski instead of yukking it up with him. But it's more fun for too many people in this business to get a thrill up their leg being close to power. Danny's my friend!

"There could have been a wonderful split-screen image on the day Rostenkowski's indictment was announced two years ago," Dold wrote. "Astonished and crestfallen newsies and pols on the right; high-fiving, back-slapping regular Joes on the left.

"With the exception of a few reporters, including those who uncovered some of the corrupt practices that led to indictment, we've handled Rostenkowski as, at best, a sympathetic figure and, at worst, as something close to a martyr.

"Why? Because we like him. He's a steak-and-gin guy, and we like that in a politician. He's a colorful storyteller, if a world-class name-dropper, and we like that, too. He gave us access to what was going on, and we don't just like that, we earn our paychecks on it."

There's another way for us to earn our paychecks: Doing our job.

* * *

"Mr. Rostenkowski indeed was a creation of the old school - gruff and at times overbearing," veteran political reporter Greg Hinz writes affectionately. "One of the first stories I did here at Crain's was about how he was able to up-zone 32nd Ward property he owned before selling it, making a fat profit."

Ha ha! That's our Rosty!

"I once described Mr. Rostenkowski - who followed his father into politics - as the biggest gorilla in the Washington jungle," Hinz continues. "But he was our gorilla."

* * *

If Rostenkowski was guilty of simply not noticing that the rules had changed, he somehow missed noticing all the pols before him who went to prison for similar offenses, including a fair share of Chicago city council members. The memo must not have reached George Ryan, either, even though Ryan shared a lawyer with Rostenkowski in Dan Webb - a former U.S. Attorney here. And when Rod Blagojevich was running for governor on a campaign of reform in the wake of the Ryan scandals, he must not have paid attention to just what those scandals were; the other day he spouted that "If I get convicted of this, every politician in America should!"

Maybe so, but we can only try one at a time.

Even Mike Royko, when nobody had the guts at the end of his career to tell him he had gone off the rails, propogated this nonsense, likening Rosty's crimes to running a red light.

Really?

From Reading Rosty:

"Holder said fourteen ghost workers were paid $529,000 over a twenty-one-year period for doing little or no official work while providing personal services for Rosty such as cutting the grass at his Wisconsin home or keeping the books at Confidence Insurance. The indictments listed the ghosts by number, but the Sun-Times promptly named them in the next morning's edition.

"Further, Justice charged Rostenkowski with $101,767 in a fraud to get seven personal vehicles disguised as 'mobile district offices,' with $1,800 in House-paid parking garage fees tossed in for good measure. Also, he was accused of pocketing $49,300 in stamps-for-cash scams and taking $42,200 in stationery store items. In total, the chairman allegedly misused $724,267. Of this sum, $668,000 came from taxpayers and $56,267 from campaign funds.

"The government leveled no charges on Rosty's practice of paying himself and family members rents for family-owned property. Nor did it accuse him of income tax evasion. Some, until they read the forty-eight page indictment, took the latter omission as a sign of weakness in the government's case. Rather, it was a deliberate act to keep the trial in Washington. In a previous prosecution of a Louisiana congressman, the defendant exercised his right to be tried in the jurisdiction where his tax returns were filed, whereupon a hometown jury acquitted him. Holder was not about to let Rosty move the trial to Chicago.

*

"[F]or the most part, Rosty's use of ghosts seemed petty, abusive, tyrannical. Roger A. Kopacz, an electrical inspector, married Kristie Rosten in 1980. Before joining the family, Kopacz was required to hand over most of his $10,400 ghost pay to Rostenkowski as cash kickbacks."

*

"In another specimen of machine money churning, the son of a state senator got $48,400 in ghost pay over three years while Rosty's daughters Stacy and Dawn received $48,000 from the senator's payroll."

Was Rostenkowski supposed to be above the law, allowed to act like a common gangster? To squirrel away taxpayer money for his own fun and games?

Apparently so.

"Danny's problem was that he played precisely under the rules of the city of Chicago," Gerald Ford once said. "Now, those aren't the same rules that that any other place in the world lives by, but in Chicago, they were totally legal, and Danny got a screwing."

The current editor of the Tribune - the one who says watchdog reporting is part of the paper's "brand statement" - agrees.

* * *

"Had lunch last Friday with Dan Rostenkowski and a few other pals," Neil Steinberg wrote on Feb. 4, 2009. "A rollicking good time upstairs at Gene & Georgetti, as always, and while discretion forbids me from revealing anything that was said, I must comment upon one gesture.

"Occasionally, to emphasize a point or subtly signal that I should shut up so he could speak, Mr. Chairman would reach over, grasp my forearm and give it a squeeze.

"Afterward, I thought about how many times Lyndon Johnson must have done the same thing to Rostenkowski , and it pleased me greatly to think of that squeeze being passed from LBJ to Rosty to me."

* * *

"He was a throwback to a different era when backroom deals were alright," the Tribune's Bob Secter said on WGN-TV on Wednesday.

When was that? The 50s? The 60s? The 70s? Chicago pols have gone to prison for corruption since the town was found.

And if he was a throwback, why do pols continue to behave that way today?

"A throwback who was caught in a time warp and did not keep up changes in the rules - this was the received judgment," James L. Merriner wrote in Mr. Chairman. "Although in many ways an anachronism, Rosty was more of an exemplar, an imago of what the rest of the country hated about Washington, the excesses and nuisances and abuses of big government and its celebrity masters."

* * * *

"The persistent effort to excuse Rostenkowski has shown why the news media, particularly the Washington circle that shows up hand-in-hand with their sources on weekend TV, are perceived by readers and viewers as one class with politicians," Dold wrote 14 years ago.

We don't seem to have learned a damn thing.

-

Comments welcome.




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Posted on August 11, 2010


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