The voice was unmistakable: Gruff, raspy, Rosty. And from his greeting, I knew this would be a story.
"Congressman Rostenkowski" is how the former chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee answered his cell phone. Not "ex-con Rostenkowski," not "Mr. Rostenkowski," not even "Hey, I've been pardoned by Bill Clinton, Rostenkowski".
Nope, it's "Congressman."
And with good reason. Congress is still paying the chairman. According to the National Taxpayers Union, an organization that advocates for lower taxes, Rosty is making $126,000 a year from his federal pension. Not bad for a guy that went to prison after being indicted on 17 counts of, among other charges, embezzling public funds.
Now those same public funds pay Rosty. And the National Taxpayers Union is sick of it. The union sent a letter to the new leaders in congress. This letter was signed by a couple of dozen watchdog groups, from the left and the right to the middle, and it asked, in effect, why are we paying the pensions of congressional felons?
According to the Taxpayers Union research, 20 lawmakers over the last 25 years have been found guilty of serious crimes while in office. All 20 received, or are still receiving, congressional retirement benefits.
Randall "Duke" Cunningham and James Traficant are both in prison right now, and both collecting. "Duke" gets an estimated $64,000 a year. Traficant's estimated pension is $40,000.
The National Taxpayers Union is pushing Congress to stop this by adding simple provision to the law: If you are convicted of a serious crime while in Congress, you lose the taxpayer-funded portion of your congressional pension.
I wanted to ask Congressman Rostenkowski what he thought about this, so I got his cell phone number from a friend and called him. That's when he answered, "Congressman Rostenkowski." But the senior statesman apparently picks and chooses his topics these days carefully.
"What benefit is it to me?" he asked, before denying my request for an interview. For an ex-con who's getting an estimated 126,000 benefits a year from taxpayers, keeping quiet makes a whole lot of cents!