Congress will have another opportunity soon to clean up its own house by compelling the House Ethics Committee to open a long-overdue probe of the House Post Office. Several members of Congress evidently used the Post Office to embezzle tens of thousands of dollars from taxpayers. It's time to do something about it.
The House Post Office affair is a continuing scandal that has never died, though many have sought to bury it. For years, the embezzlement was discussed -- and dismissed -- as only a rumor. Six postal employees have been convicted of various improprieties, but the last was the bombshell. On July 19, Robert V. Rota, postmaster for two decades, made a surprise guilty plea in federal court to three counts of conspiracy to aid embezzlement.
In the court papers, government prosecutors stated they could prove "the embezzlement of United States funds by certain United States congressmen" in the sum of tens of thousands of dollars. The court papers also described how the scheme worked: Congressmen were given cash from Post Office funds, while official records would make it look as though they had bought stamps with their office funds. But in almost eight months since then, there I ave been no indictments.
How many members of Congress were involved? Who are they? And why has nothing been done about them? The stock answer is that the Justice Department is investigating, so the House should stand aside and leave the matter alone. That answer isn't good enough, for multiple reasons: first, because :he House has an independent constitutional duty to act against internal wrongdoers; second, because it's questionable whether the Justice Department will resolve the whole mess.
The foremost job of the House Ethics Committee is to pursue major violators, not minor ones. The Constitution charges us with policing the "disorderly behavior" of our members. We cannot pass the buck to anybody else to do this for us.
In fact, when a separate House task force reviewed general postal operations in 1992, Rota lied to cover up the embezzlement scam. The task force also bristled at the suggestion from the Justice Department that Congress should leave such matters alone for prosecutors to pursue. Accusing Justice of trying to "thwart" internal probing by the House, the task force's report stated it was hampered by Justice's "intermeddling and interference with this legislative mandate."
If left to itself, would the Justice Department clean up this mess? The absence of indictments after eight months is disturbing, especially since the prosecutors at that time told the court confidently that they could prove the embezzlement. …