Former Representative Dan Rostenkowski dies at 82

CHICAGO Wed Aug 11, 2010 3:16pm EDT

Former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski talks with reporters in Chicago in this March 15, 1994 file photo. REUTERS/Scott Olson/Files

Former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski talks with reporters in Chicago in this March 15, 1994 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Scott Olson/Files

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Dan Rostenkowski, who as Congress' chief tax-writer was one of most powerful U.S. politicians in the 1980s and early 1990s until brought down by a corruption conviction and a 17-month prison sentence, has died at age 82.

The office of an alderman in Rostenkowski's old congressional district in Chicago on Wednesday confirmed his death.

As chairman of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee for 13 years starting in 1981, the Illinois Democrat had a hand in some of the most important legislation of that period.

But a federal grand jury indicted him on felony corruption charges in 1994, and he eventually pleaded guilty to mail fraud.

Just last March, another Democrat who led the Ways and Means Committee, Charles Rangel, was forced to step down as chairman in the face of ethics charges.

Even as federal prosecutors closed in on him, Rostenkowski worked to get then-President Bill Clinton's healthcare plan though his committee, a mark of the political skills he learned as the son of a Chicago alderman.

Born on January 2, 1928 in Chicago, Rostenkowski attended Loyola University. He then entered the famed political machine of former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and at 24 became the Illinois House's youngest member.

In 1958 he was elected to the House, where he became known as Daley's man in Congress. After Daley died in 1976, Rostenkowski gained a reputation for his ability to make deals, twist arms, call in debts and get things done.

He took over a badly fractured Ways and Means Committee, and after suffering defeats by newly elected Republican President Ronald Reagan, worked to rebuild its authority.

Rostenkowski derived some of his power by hand-picking loyal members secure enough in their own districts to cast votes that were sometimes unpopular back home.

The results included the landmark 1990 and 1993 deficit reduction plans and a 1986 tax reform bill.

But then federal investigators spent two years interviewing witnesses to build a case against the legend in Congress known as "Rosty." Among the charges against him were trading in stamps purchased for official business in return for money, keeping "ghost" employees on his payroll and buying gifts like expensive chairs for friends with House funds.

Rostenkowski remained respected and even feared throughout a two-year investigation. In his home district of Chicago, he proved his popularity by being easily renominated.

But after the indictments, he was defeated in 1994 by Republican Michael Flanagan. Flanagan in turn lost his seat in 1996 to Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who is currently awaiting a verdict in a corruption trial relating to his tenure as governor of Illinois.

In 1994 Republicans used Rostenkowski as the symbol for a House controlled by Democrats for a half century. Republicans took control of Congress that fall.

After his release from prison, Rostenkowski became a political consultant and commentator. Clinton pardoned him in 2000.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

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