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Prosecutors Offered Final Plea Bargain Deal to Rostenkowski

By Pierre Thomas and Kenneth J. Cooper
The Washington Post

U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. has made a final plea bargain offer in negotiations with lawyers for Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., and set Tuesday as the deadline for Rostenkowski to accept the proposal or risk almost certain indictment on a wide range of charges, sources knowledgeable about the negotiations said Wednesday.

If Rostenkowski refuses, the sources said, Holder's move for an indictment against the House Ways and Means Committee chairman would be swift, possibly as early as the Tuesday deadline.

Rostenkowski declined to comment Wednesday on the negotiations and efforts to reach his attorney, Robert S. Bennett, were unsuccessful.

But Democrats on the committee said that Rostenkowski still hoped to avoid going to jail, and was leaning toward fighting the prosecution's case that he conspired to defraud the government through misuse of his congressional office funds.

Throughout negotiations, federal prosecutors have insisted that Rostenkowski plead guilty to at least one felony charge and serve some time in jail. After haggling for days over the breadth of the charges, sources said Holder has now made clear that the negotiating "can't continue forever."

This latest twist to the complex and fluid negotiations over Rostenkowski's legal future indicates that one of Congress's most influential members is all but certain to leave or be removed from the Ways and Means chairmanship, a position thought to be critical in the ongoing debate over President Clinton's plans for health and welfare reform. Rostenkowski is considered an invaluable ally on both fronts.

Under normal procedures of the House Democratic Caucus, Rostenkowski would have to step down from the committee chairmanship if he were indicted on a felony punishable by at least two years in prison.

Ironically, a guilty plea apparently would give him a small window of opportunity to retain the chairmanship. The rules do not compel a member convicted of criminal charges to resign from office or leadership positions, although such members are likely to face an ethics investigation and disciplinary actions.

Federal prosecutors have outlined a broad case against Rostenkowski of conspiracy to defraud the government. After a two-year investigation, prosecutors have forwarded information to the Justice Department alleging that the veteran lawmaker paid employees for work not done and that he abused official accounts for leased cars, office supplies and office space.

Sources said that the alleged illegal activity involves "several hundred thousand dollars." Rostenkowski is accused of trading office postage stamps for cash and assuming ownership of cars previously leased by the government, the sources said. He has since reimbursed the House Stationery Store $82,000, according to individuals familiar with the case.