LESS THAN 24 hours after rejecting a plea bargain, Dan Rostenkowski, one of America's most powerful politicians and a key congressional ally of Bill Clinton, was yesterday formally charged on 17 counts for fraud and corruption, which could send him to jail for many years.
The indictments, handed down by a federal grand jury, are believed to involve hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money. They include telegraph fraud, mail fraud, conspiracy and embezzlement, in what prosecutors called 'a pattern of corruption for more than 20 years'. The allegations are said to concern the use of congressional expense accounts to buy lavish personal gifts for supporters, the payment from campaign funds of non-existent employees, and the use of government-paid cars for private purposes.
The showdown followed the collapse of intensive negotiations between Mr Rostenkowski and government attorneys, during which his lawyers urged him to accept a deal before yesterday's deadline imposed by federal prosecutors. But a weekend of discussions with his family convinced him to fight to the end.
The offer from the federal prosecutors would have entailed the 66-year-old Democratic congressman pleading guilty to at least one felony charge, resigning the Chicago seat he has held since 1968, and serving a six-month prison term. But it would have spared him a long and costly public trial.
But in a written statement on Monday Mr Rostenkowski once again declared his innocence. Refusing to 'buckle to government pressure', he promised to fight for his reputation in court - 'a far more attractive option than pleading guilty to crimes I did not commit. I am confident I will be vindicated'.
With those words, Mr Rostenkowski is gambling he can break free of the net which has steadily tightened around him since a scandal at the House post office was uncovered in early 1992. The initial allegations were that he had siphoned off more than dollars 20,000 ( pounds 15,000) from the post office in a stamp vouchers-for-cash fraud, but the investigation widened into an inquiry of his entire congressional operation, both in Washington and Chicago.
The indictments mean Mr Rostenkowski must step down as chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, the main tax-writing committee on Capitol Hill whose role will be crucial if Mr Clinton's health care bill is to pass this year.
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