Kevin O’Toole’s Message for Legislators: Know Where the “Dan Rostenkowski Line” is in Politics

Kevin O'Toole, former senator from the 40th Legislative District, warns legislators to learn from the lessons of former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, who was indicted for misuse of public funds and aids for personal gain.

There are those legislators who take their staffers under their wing to train and mentor hungry young professionals to be fine-tuned political operatives; there are those who mistreat their staffers so badly that they break the “vow of silence” against their boss (see Amy Klobuchar or Todd Rokita); and then there are those who view their staffers as both professional and personal aides. Despite what singer Meatloaf sang, being 2-out-of-3 on this list is not a good thing.  

Whenever I see or read a story about an elected official doing the high wire act of explaining the “function” of their staffers, a message will appear from one of my former staffers with the subject line “Rostenkowski.”  

Who is Rostenkowski?  

Dan Rostenkowski was a congressman who rose through the ranks of the Chicago political machine to national prominence as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. It was during his time as Chairman of this Committee that President Reagan wanted to overhaul the tax code. It was during this critical legislative period that “Rosty” went from a back-room dealmaker to “Chairman” Rostenkowski.  

He delivered the nationally televised response to President Reagan’s Oval Office address about his tax plan for Democrats. He cajoled members of Congress when appropriate, punished when necessary, horse-traded when needed, cashed in old favors – he worked the levers of Congress as only he could to pass the tax cut plan. 

Then it all came crashing down in 1994 with his indictment in the House Post Office scandal. The indictment said he used congressional funds to buy gifts for friends, diverted taxpayer funds to pay for vehicles used for personal transportation, tampered with a Grand Jury witness, traded-in official postage stamps for cash, and had 14 “ghost” employees on his payroll.  

The “ghost employees” on his public payroll were not in his office working for the people, rather working for him personally. Among the things these “government employees” did were mow the lawn of his vacation home, pick up his laundry, take pictures at his daughter’s wedding, supervised renovations at his home, and in the case of his former son-in-law, returned most of his public salary back to Rostenkowski in cash.  

We all have current and former aides that by virtue of time spent together are exposed to our personal and professional lives. The information they know, in the case of some, could be more harmful than a bad vote on a tax increase. I’ve written on this topic before (A Legislator’s Guide to Treating Staff), but this is a little different. 

Dropping your child off to school in the morning on your way to Trenton, with your aide in the car, is one thing; telling your staffer to pick your kid up from school at 2:45 pm because you’re busy is another. Having your staffer wait in the car as you pick up dry cleaning after returning from an event is one thing; having them drop off your dry cleaning every Tuesday is another. Asking your staffer to grab Starbucks from over the bridge in Morrisville because the caucus room coffee isn’t that good and it’s late in Trenton (Remember the words of the late-great Assemblyman John V. Kelly: staff NEVER pays) is one thing; having them bring you a soy chai latte every morning to your house is another. Hiring a part-timer in your office is one thing; hiring a part-timer for $10,000 and having them max out to your campaign (primary and general) is another.  

In the end, Rostenkowski once lamented to a friend, “I’m going to jail for sending a guy a rocking chair.”  He went on to add that his obituary will read: “Dan Rostenkowski, felon.  

To all my former friends (and even the ones who weren’t) in the Legislature, don’t pull a “Rostenkowski.” You got to this point without a 24/7 personal valet, you don’t need one now. You’re better than that.   

Much like the “Mendoza Line” in baseball, we all know the “Rostenkowski Line” in politics when we see it.  

Kevin O’Toole is the former senator from the 40th Legislative District.

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