The Rostenkowski Rules

If Donald Barlett worked in Chicago, Dan Rostenkowski would be running even more scared than he is. One of America’s great investigative reporters, Barlett and his partner James Steele have portrayed the congressman in damning terms. But Barlett and Steele don’t write for Rostenkowski’s constituents on the northwest side of Chicago. Their home is the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A month ago Barlett and Steele analyzed tax changes proposed by President Bush and Rostenkowski, who’s chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. (Over the phone, Barlett called their proposals “unfathomable.”) Bush wants to lower the capital-gains tax; Rostenkowski, they wrote, “is pushing for a new tax deduction for corporations, allowing them to write off something that accountants call ‘goodwill.’

“Both changes would continue the legislative practices of the last two decades that have tilted the economic rules in favor of the few at the expense of the many.”

Barlett and Steele specialize in the dissection of this rule tilting. Last October, after two years of research, they published “America: What Went Wrong?”—a nine-part autopsy of the 80s that showed, to quote the Inquirer, “how millions of Americans have fallen victim to a combination of rulemakers in Washington and dealmakers on Wall Street.”

The Inquirer presented Rostenkowski as one of the great rule makers and rule tilters. A principal author of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, he asked his colleagues then, “Do we want to give back to middle-income taxpayers the fairness they do not believe will ever come? Or do we want to stand for the status quo, which goes hard on the poor—and easy on the rich?”

Rhetorical questions, of course. But according to Barlett and Steele, “The answer—documented in an Inquirer analysis of tax data—is that Congress has stood for the rich.”

They held up Rostenkowski—”the one lawmaker who more than any other determines the structure of America’s tax system”—as an example of why that is. Barlett and Steele calculated that from 1980 through 1990 Rostenkowski received $1.7 million “in speaking fees or honoraria . . . from groups seeking favored treatment”—twice his total salary as a congressman.

But it was in “The Great Tax Giveaway,” a 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the 1986 Tax Reform Act, that Barlett and Steele struck Rostenkowski more than glancing blows. The series analyzed hundreds of “transition rules”—actually occult tax exemptions—written into that act, and the two reporters concluded that “Rostenkowski and other self-styled reformers created a new maze of unprecedented favoritism.”

Item: as much as $12 million in tax breaks granted the wealthy Chicagoans behind the North Pier Terminal. Item: as much as $40 million in tax breaks given to Seagram & Sons. Barlett and Steele reported that Rostenkowski received a $5,000 speaking fee from Seagram & Sons, a $1,000 campaign contribution from a member of the Bronfman family, which controls Seagram, and $2,000 in contributions from Seagram’s political-action committee.

Item: an estimated $11 million tax break for the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company and an estimated $15 million break for Aetna Life Insurance Company, each of whose PACs gave to Rostenkowski. Aetna and Mass Mutual were 2 of 15 insurers blessed by the 1986 tax act.

In the U.S. Senate Ohio’s Howard Metzenbaum wondered what was going on here. He sharply questioned Rostenkowski’s collaborator, Oregon’s Robert Packwood, then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Packwood responded:

“This was perhaps the last or next-to-last transition rule that Congressman Rostenkowski and I agreed to at three o’clock or four o’clock in the morning. And I must confess that on this one I made a mistake. I thought the request related to one company in which the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee was interested. He said, ‘Bob, this is critical to me and it is critical to the person that I am asking for.’ He named it. I said, ‘Mr. Chairman, I will give it to you.’ I did not know at the time that it related to 15 companies.”

Barlett and Steele’s output has made its way to the camp of Rostenkowski’s challenger, Dick Simpson; the father of Simpson’s communications director, Tom Gradel, is a librarian at the Inquirer. And in unusual back-to-back news conferences, Simpson and William Lipinski accused their opponents, Rostenkowski and Marty Russo, of doing favors for the insurance industry. (A Ways and Means protege of Rostenkowski’s, Russo sat on the joint committee that added the final touches to the 1986 bill.)

Dick Simpson is a friend of ours, but no one in his camp put us on this story. Someone who knows Barlett from his days at the Chicago Daily News in the late 60s called to say what a shame it is that Barlett and Steele don’t have an outlet in Chicago. The Tribune could pick up their stories, but doesn’t.

Do you think of Rostenkowski as corrupt? we asked Barlett.

“No, I wouldn’t call him corrupt,” he said. “He’s a Chicago-style politician. He knows how to trade and how to cook deals and how to use influence. And he’s very good at it.”

Do these deals he cooks do anything for his constituents? we asked.

“His ordinary constituents? Absolutely not. Absolutely not.”

Obviously disagreeing, the Tribune and the Sun-Times have already endorsed Rostenkowski, on grounds that he looks after Chicago’s interests along with his pals’.

Royko’s Tortured Reasoning

It’s always odd to see a journalist declare himself uncurious. Then why are you in the business? a reader might wonder. When the journalist is Mike Royko and the matter he shows no interest in is alleged police torture, the reader might be baffled. We were.

“I don’t doubt that someone abused Andrew Wilson after he was arrested,” Royko wrote last week, nearly three weeks into the police board’s hearings for Commander Jon Burge and two detectives. “But we don’t know who did it, and we’ll never know. It could have been the three facing dismissal. It could have been others. Since the city doesn’t know, it should let it go.”

After all, Wilson killed two cops. And all this happened ten years ago. But the city decided not to let it go. Because the abuse Andrew Wilson says he suffered included electroshock and radiator burns, and because scars and old photographs and the testimony of a doctor who examined him support his story, and because other witnesses allege that such abuse occurred frequently at the Area 2 police station, we think the city made the proper decision.

“Wilson has had more than his day in court,” wrote Royko. “He had two murder trials, during which he had a chance to make his torture case against the cops. He had two federal trials in which he had the same chance. He and his lawyers didn’t do it. Yet Police Supt. LeRoy Martin wants them fired, so we have still another hearing that isn’t turning up much of anything that didn’t come out before.”

Wilson’s first civil trial ended in a hung jury. The second jury found that Wilson’s constitutional rights had been violated on the night in 1982 he was interrogated at Area 2, and also found that there’d been a de facto policy allowing police to abuse suspects accused of killing policemen. But the jury concluded that Wilson was not abused under this policy. The jury foreman told the Reader’s John Conroy that though he believed Wilson was injured as a result of an “emotional outburst” by some police officers, there wasn’t enough evidence to prove he’d been tortured.

Should the city now have shrugged and said, “Well, maybe they were torturing people at Area 2 and maybe they weren’t, but it’s water over the dam”? A handful of loud, persistent critics—the sort of people Royko says should “get a life”—thought not. They began campaigning for a serious investigation by the Office of Professional Standards, the kind of investigation that wasn’t made back in 1982. The results were striking. One OPS investigator sustained Wilson’s allegations against Burge and the detectives. Another concluded that “the preponderance of the evidence is that abuse did occur [at Area 2] and that it was systematic. The time span involved covers more than ten years.”

Royko ignored these reports. He probably hasn’t read them. He granted that the current hearing “might be justified if these three cops were known to be dirty. But they aren’t. To the contrary, they have excellent records.”

So? A reputation as a solid citizen doesn’t put someone above the law. And if the cops were already known to be dirty, a dismissal hearing wouldn’t be necessary. The point of the hearing is to find out whether they’re dirty or not.

Royko dismissed the role of Amnesty International. He said Wilson’s lawyers apparently told Amnesty what they thought had happened, and in response Amnesty “issued some sort of statement that if these things are happening, they should be investigated. Not that Amnesty International knows if any of it is true.”

Royko called it “a publicity stunt that worked.”

Actually, Amnesty in London didn’t become interested in Area 2 until Amnesty’s Chicago office sent London a copy of John Conroy’s 1990 Reader article “House of Screams.” This account moved London to write the Illinois attorney general and later the U.S. attorney, the Cook County state’s attorney, and city officials to urge them to step in.

Amnesty was assured that OPS would handle the matter. To keep the pressure on, Amnesty’s 1991 report on torture around the world recounted the allegations against Area 2.

“Not that Amnesty International knows if any of it is true,” said Royko.

But unlike Royko, Amnesty wants to know.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.