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Rostenkowski to begin serving 17-month term

Published Sep. 16, 2005

If nothing else, Dan Rostenkowski will have plenty of time to think in the coming months, and one item he might ponder is a fateful vote that he and congressional colleagues cast Sept. 25, 1984.

It seemed utterly routine at the time, a pro forma approval of something called House Joint Resolution 648, a congressional "Christmas tree" bill larded with a grab bag of pork and substance.

But within the layers of fat were get-tough provisions that led to a revamp of the way federal criminals do time.

After months of delay because of prostate cancer surgery, Rostenkowski is scheduled today to enter the federal facility in Rochester, Minn., to begin a 17-month sentence for corruption. It is a stint he must serve to near-entirety thanks to HJR 648. Before its passage, he could have been sprung in as little as 6 months.

That is only one of the ironies facing the 68-year-old Rostenkowski, who pleaded guilty April 9 to skimming federal money to shower cronies with gifts and grease political errands.

"His spirits are good," said Howard Pearl, an attorney for Rostenkowski who said the former congressman spent a quiet weekend with his family. "He's accepted the judge's decision and is prepared to get this behind him."

Still, the transition from a powerhouse who crafted the nation's laws to a felon punished for breaking them could be as jarring as it is humbling for the former Northwest Side Democratic congressman.

Over 36 years in the House, Rostenkowski rose to become a confidant of presidents and policy wonks of both major parties and the committee chairman with a life-or-death grip over the nation's tax code. Sometimes brusque as a bully, he wheeled and dealed with a swagger that to some shouted, "I'm important and you're not."

As an inmate at Rochester, a onetime state psychiatric hospital converted to a federal prison hospital 11 years ago, Rostenkowski must trade in the tailored suits for a wardrobe of military-surplus fatigues. The good liquor and fat steaks he downed regularly at swank eateries will be replaced by three squares of bland institutional fare at a common table in the prison mess. His stomping grounds will shrink from the broad expanses of Capitol Hill to a complex of seven squatty, red brick buildings.

Perhaps most symbolically, the man called Mr. Chairman by an army of Capitol Hill pals and coat holders will become known by his last name and a prison ID number assigned on his arrival. That's the way federal inmates must identify themselves to their guards at roll calls and checkpoints.

Considered a low flight risk, Rostenkowski will probably turn himself in voluntarily at Rochester.

Once inside, he will be whisked to a process called receiving that starkly underscores his fall from grace. He will be fingerprinted, his mug shots taken, and his street clothes and personal effects confiscated and inventoried.