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Dan Rostenkowski, Chicago congressman sent to prison, dies at 82

Former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the Chicago Democrat who became the leading architect of congressional tax policy in the Reagan era but later went to federal prison for corruption, died Wednesday (Aug. 11, 2010), a family friend said. He was 82.

Mr. Rostenkowski, who served 18 terms before losing in 1994, died of lung cancer, surrounded by family at his home in Lake Benedict, Wis., said friend Ellen Tully. As House Ways and Means Committee chairman, Mr. Rostenkowski was known as a consensus builder and a master of legislative tactics.

His back-room deals and bipartisan compromises were key to passing a landmark 1986 tax bill that closed huge loopholes for corporations and exempted millions of low-income workers from paying taxes. The bill, the most sweeping tax reform since World War II, came after revelations that more than 100 of the nation's largest corporations had entirely avoided paying federal taxes one year in the early 1980s.

Friends and colleagues said that despite the corruption scandal — Mr. Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to using office funds for his own use — he will be remembered as a master politician who got things done.

"He was the go-to guy for (Chicago) mayors," former Secretary of Commerce William Daley said, listing his father, the late Richard J. Daley, and his brother, current Mayor Richard M. Daley. "You didn't go the senators, you went to Danny."

Mr. Rostenkowski was proud of representing an urban district and saw his job as bringing projects back to Chicago, including billions for major construction projects, William Daley said.

But Mr. Rostenkowski himself acknowledged that his legacy would always be tainted by his stint in federal prison.

"I know that my obituary will say, 'Dan Rostenkowski, felon,' and it is something that I have to live with,' " he said in a 1998 broadcast interview with Robert Novak and Mark Shields.

In 2000, however, then-President Bill Clinton pardoned Mr. Rostenkowski. Two prominent Republicans, former President Gerald R. Ford and former House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel were among those urging the pardon.

Mr. Rostenkowski's problems began in 1992 when a grand jury in Washington charged him with 17 counts of misusing government and campaign funds.

The scandal forced him to step down as chairman and led to his 1994 defeat by Republican unknown Michael Patrick Flanagan, who became the first GOP congressman from Chicago in 35 years.

It was part of a Republican sweep that returned the GOP to power in both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1950s. (Flanagan served just one term before being ousted by then-Democratic state Rep. Rod Blagojevich.

After his conviction, Mr. Rostenkowski served 17 months in prison.

Information from the Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.

Dan Rostenkowski, Chicago congressman sent to prison, dies at 82 08/12/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 12, 2010 12:17am]

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