Congressman Dan Rostenkowski Is Indicted in House Post Office Scandal

As part of the House post office scandal, long-time U.S. representative Dan Rostenkowski, a Washington, D.C., power player, was indicted on charges that included exchanging postal stamps purchased for official House business for cash, buying expensive gifts for friends and family with government funds, and witness tampering. He was found guilty on some charges, served fifteen months in a federal white-collar-crime prison camp, and saw the end of an otherwise illustrious, influential career.

Summary of Event

Dan Rostenkowski was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1928 and elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1958. In 1964 he became a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes most tax legislation, and served as the committee’s chairman from 1981 to 1994. [kw]Rostenkowski Is Indicted in House Post Office Scandal, Congressman Dan (June 1, 1994)
[kw]House Post Office Scandal, Congressman Dan Rostenkowski Is Indicted in (June 1, 1994)
Rostenkowski, Dan
Congress, U.S.;Dan Rostenkowski[Rostenkowski]
Post Office scandal
Congress, U.S.;Post Office scandal
Mail fraud;Dan Rostenkowski[Rostenkowski]
Rostenkowski, Dan
Congress, U.S.;Dan Rostenkowski[Rostenkowski]
Post Office scandal
Congress, U.S.;Post Office scandal
Mail fraud;Dan Rostenkowski[Rostenkowski]
[g]United States;June 1, 1994: Congressman Dan Rostenkowski Is Indicted in House Post Office Scandal[02640]
[c]Corruption;June 1, 1994: Congressman Dan Rostenkowski Is Indicted in House Post Office Scandal[02640]
[c]Government;June 1, 1994: Congressman Dan Rostenkowski Is Indicted in House Post Office Scandal[02640]
[c]Politics;June 1, 1994: Congressman Dan Rostenkowski Is Indicted in House Post Office Scandal[02640]
[c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;June 1, 1994: Congressman Dan Rostenkowski Is Indicted in House Post Office Scandal[02640]
[c]Law and the courts;June 1, 1994: Congressman Dan Rostenkowski Is Indicted in House Post Office Scandal[02640]
Rota, Robert V.
Rauh, Carl
Bennett, Robert S.

Dan Rostenkowski outside the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., following his arraignment on corruption charges on June 10, 1994.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

During this thirteen-year-period as chairman, Rostenkowski controlled the tax-writing committee with an iron fist. He played a significant part in the tax and trade policy formation during the Ronald Reagan administration of the 1980’s. In particular, he helped push through the 1986 Tax Reform Act, which lowered taxes and simplified the rather complex and confusing tax code. He had established himself as one of the most dominant members of the House of Representatives and was expected to play a crucial role in numerous legislative battles for the Bill Clinton administration of the 1990’s, battles that would include health care, tax reform, trade provisions, and welfare policy. However, Rostenkowski’s reputation and political career quickly collapsed in the spring of 1994 when he was charged with more than one dozen counts of fraud and political corruption involving the House post office.

Rostenkowski had attended the prestigious St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin, for high school from 1942 to 1946. After graduation, he entered the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Division and served in Korea from 1946 to 1948. After his military service he opted to continue his education at Loyola University in Chicago, where he attended from 1948 to 1951. After college, Rostenkowski began his political career as an Illinois state senator at the young age of twenty-four.

Rostenkowski’s political roots date back to the early 1930’s, when his father, Joseph P. Rostenkowski, served as a ward alderman and committee member for more than two decades between 1936 and 1961. His father’s years of service to the Democratic Party provided his son with a strong political foundation on which to begin and, essentially, flourish. Eventually, the young Rostenkowski would follow in his father’s footsteps. During his early years as a state senator, Rostenkowski cultivated a strong political friendship with Chicago mayor Richard Daley. Daley became Rostenkowski’s mentor and helped him get elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1958. Thirty-five years after becoming a Congress member, his lengthy, successful career would come to an end.

On June 1, 1994, a federal grand jury indicted Rostenkowski on seventeen criminal corruption charges, including misuse of public and government funds, fraud, conspiracy, and concealing material facts. U.S. attorney Eric H. Holder, Jr., said at a news conference following the indictment,

The allegations contained in today’s indictment represent a betrayal of the public trust for personal gain. In essence, this indictment alleges that Congressman Rostenkowski used his elective office to perpetuate an extensive fraud on the American people.

Rostenkowski’s schemes allegedly cost taxpayers more than $500,000. Charges included witness tampering, mail fraud, and wire fraud. Between January, 1978, and April, 1991, he allegedly took at least $50,000 in cash disguised as purchases of stamps from the House post office. His coconspirator, former House postmaster Robert V. Rota, who also pleaded guilty to embezzlement, said that during a six-year period, Rostenkowski traded in postal vouchers for over $20,000, had taken stamps, and then sold those for cash. The investigation into Rostenkowski’s illegal activities began in 1991, after Rota and his employees were being monitored for criminal activities in the House post office as well. Those investigations began in what came to be called the House post office scandal.

Rostenkowski also was accused of a kickback scam dating back to 1971. He had hired fourteen individuals to work for him, yet their work amounted to menial tasks such as mowing his lawn at his summer home and taking wedding photographs for his daughters. Some of his hires did no work. Those who did no work allegedly collected a substantial monthly paycheck and kicked back a portion of their salaries to Rostenkowski as a sign of gratitude for being hired. These employees would submit their government paychecks to Rostenkowski’s Chicago office manager, who would then distribute the cash to the “ghost” employees for less than the actual value of their original paychecks.

From April, 1988, to January, 1992, Rostenkowski also allegedly used approximately $40,000 in office funds to buy expensive gifts for family and friends. Furthermore, he used more than $100,000 in House funds and over $70,000 in political-campaign funds to buy and rent automobiles for the personal use of his family members and his friends. Additionally, the most serious of the charges—witness tampering—occurred in September, 1993. After learning of the federal investigation into his past illicit activities, Rostenkowski also attempted to discourage a federal prosecution witness, an engraver who had inscribed plaques for crystal sculptures that he was giving as gifts to friends. Rostenkowski had billed these engravings to his government expense account at the House stationery shop but neglected to pay for them. This charge of witness tampering was by far the most severe allegation, bringing with it a possible criminal sentence of ten years in federal prison.

As the corruption unfolded and the federal investigation continued, Rostenkowski lost his leadership roles and lost his bid for reelection to the House. The first deal offered to Rostenkowski by the U.S. attorney, one that the Congress member publicly rejected, would have sent him to jail for six months and required him to pay a fine of roughly $38,000. Based on the advice of his high-profile defense attorneys, Carl Rauh and Robert S. Bennett, Rostenkowski accepted a plea agreement the following year that reduced the total number of criminal charges from seventeen to two—for mail fraud only. Finally, in April, 1996, he was sentenced to seventeen months in a federal white-collar-crime prison camp and was fined $100,000.

In May, before entering prison, Rostenkowski had successful prostate cancer surgery. On July 22, he began serving his sentence at the Federal Medical Center Rochester (in Minnesota) for white-collar prisoners. Following a full recovery from his cancer treatment, he was transferred to a federal minimum-security prison camp in Oxford, Wisconsin, which was near Chicago. The camp is known as a recreational house of reform for former crooked politicians and elderly mobsters. After serving fifteen months, Rostenkowski was given the chance to serve his last two months at a Salvation Army halfway house in Chicago until his formal release on October 15, 1997.

Rostenkowski was granted a full federal pardon in 2000 by President Clinton, Bill
[p]Clinton, Bill;pardons of Bill Clinton, who pardoned more than seventy white-collar offenders in his last days in office. In the years following his release from prison, Rostenkowski worked as a political commentator, adjunct college professor, and chief executive officer of Danross Associates, Inc., a legislative consulting firm specializing in governmental affairs.


After more than three decades in Congress and as one of the nation’s most powerful Democratic Party leaders, Rostenkowski saw his political career collapse almost instantaneously. The extent of his known illegal activities cost the American public close to half a million dollars and inadvertently brought attention to the many misuses of authority and power carried out by those persons who are elected to serve their constituents and represent them in Congress.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s response to the myriad illicit activities carried out by Rostenkowski offered some hope that criminal and unethical acts carried out by politicians will not be tolerated. Although he was granted a full presidential pardon, the fact remains that Rostenkowski was caught, indicted, convicted, and imprisoned for his crimes. However, the public witnessed once again how political power, greed, and success breed crime and corruption. Politicians continue to cross moral and legal boundaries. Ultimately, Rostenkowski’s greed destroyed his career, but it also further strained the public’s fragile trust and faith in their elected officials. Rostenkowski, Dan
Congress, U.S.;Dan Rostenkowski[Rostenkowski]
Post Office scandal
Congress, U.S.;Post Office scandal
Mail fraud;Dan Rostenkowski[Rostenkowski]

Further Reading

  • Cohen, Richard. Rostenkowski: The Pursuit of Power and the End of the Old Politics. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000. This work provides a detailed look at the rise and fall of one of Washington’s most powerful members of Congress.
  • Merriner, James. Mr. Chairman: Power in Dan Rostenkowski’s America. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002. An unauthorized biography of Rostenkowski, highlighting both the positive and negative aspects of his career as a politician.
  • Roberts, Robert North. Ethics in U.S. Government: An Encyclopedia of Investigations, Scandals, Reforms, and Legislation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. A comprehensive encyclopedia documenting political scandals, ethical controversies, and investigations in the United States between 1775 and 2000.
  • Williams, Robert. Political Scandals in the United States: America in the Twentieth Century. New York: Routledge, 1998. This book gives a detailed history of American political scandal during the twentieth century, making special note of Rostenkowski’s illicit crimes as a member of Congress.

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