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US fraud case hits lawyer problem

Dan Rostenkowski, the senior Democratic Congressman accused of defrauding taxpayers of dollars 500,000 ( pounds 333,000) is edging towards parting with Washington superlawyer Robert Bennett whom he shares with President Clinton. It was Mr Bennett's agreement to represent Mr Clinton over the sexual harassment claims of Paula Jones without telling Mr Rostenkowski which so angered the Congressman that he is considering finding a new lawyer.

Also in dispute was the rejection of Mr Bennett's advice to Mr Rostenkowski to agree to a plea bargain - including six months in prison - rather than face the full 17-count indictment last Tuesday. After this was read out, Mr Bennett wanted the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a position which made him one of the most powerful men in Congress, to rebut immediately the indictment on television, but he refused.

By agreeing to represent Mr Clinton in the Paula Jones case, Mr Rostenkowski feels that his lawyer muddied the judicial waters, linking in the public mind the scandals in Little Rock and Washington. A source close to the Chicago democrat was quoted as saying he had 'lost confidence in Bennett as a result of Bennett's decision to take on representation of Clinton without telling Rostenkowski'. He must make a final decision on his choice of lawyer before he is arraigned on 10 June.

Democrats are still shocked by the severity of the charges against Mr Rostenkowski which include jury tampering, embezzlement and fraud.

Mr Bennett, saying he will only stay if he is given complete control of the case, has repeatedly denied that there is any conflict of interest in his representing Mr Clinton and Mr Rostenkowski. In a formal sense this may be true but Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School writes: 'obtaining a good deal from a US Attorney appointed by the President for a crucial point man in the President's health care campaign, while representing the president, was certain to raise media and political outcries about favouritism'.

Professor Dershowitz also makes the point that by allowing it to be reported that he was recommending a plea bargain Mr Bennett gave the impression that he believed Mr Rostenkowski guilty.