WASHINGTON — EVEN though the nature of the corruption charges against Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois have been known for months, the sweep and severity of the 17-count indictment announced last week jarred official Washington.
The charges were all the more stunning because of the credibility of the prosecutor who brought them.
Eric Himpton Holder Jr., the United States attorney running the case, has a long reputation as an evenhanded prosecutor with a sense of restraint in using the career-destroying power of his office.
The weight of the charges also puts to rest a Republican suspicion: When Mr. Holder was named US attorney last year, Republicans feared the registered Democrat would go lightly on the Rostenkowski investigation begun by a Republican predecessor. If this suspicion had lingered over the months, it evaporated last Tuesday as Holder read out a litany of charges accusing Rostenkowski of bilking the taxpayers of more than $500,000 in more than 20 years of self-dealing and favors to friends and family. The congressman denies the charges.
Many former colleagues of Holder testify that it would be sharply out of character for him to overreach in making charges against a prominent government official.
``One of the hardest things for a prosecutor to do is to decline a case,'' says Thomas Henderson, who as head of the Justice Department's public integrity section hired Holder right out of Columbia Law School in 1976. ``If the evidence is not there, Eric has the strength of character to decline a case.''
``There are US attorneys all over the country who are overzealous and bring cases that shouldn't be brought,'' but Holder is not one of them, says former assistant US attorney and now private lawyer Richard Janis.
N fact, Mr. Janis wrote in a 1988 letter supporting Holder's appointment to a federal judgeship that Holder resisted ``significant pressure'' from a federal inspector general for the prosecution of Janis's client, a federal employee stationed in Milan, Italy. Holder even intervened to ``restrain the inspector general's overzealous conduct.''
Holder is regarded as a fair-minded prosecutor who listens carefully both to subordinates and defense attorneys but who is not a pushover.
``I'll put Eric's righteous indignation [over corrupt public officials] up against anyone's,'' says Ira Raphaelson, who worked with Holder for 10 years at the Justice Department. ``But I'll also put his sense of perspective up against anyone's.''
The contrast between the broad-backed dealmaker from Chicago and the meticulous professional prosecuting him is one that speaks of the times.
Rostenkowski is one of the last of his breed. Raised among the ethnic Chicago political machines, he has built power based on relationships and deals, and brought barrels of federal projects to his home district. If the charges against him are borne out, he made a place for kith and kin to feed at the federal trough.
Holder joined the federal anti-corruption forces that burgeoned in the wake of Watergate. The son of middle-class immigrants from Barbados in the West Indies, he is the first black US attorney in the District of Columbia, which is two-thirds black.
After 12 years at the Justice Department prosecuting judges, law-enforcement agents, politicians, and other officials, he was appointed by President Reagan to the D.C. Superior Court, where he served five years.
In an interview last Thursday, Holder seemed almost nonplussed when asked to explain what about him makes him a Democrat.
``When I registered to vote, I had to pick one or the other, so I picked Democrat; Kennedy was an idol of that era,'' Holder said, paraphrasing the Will Rogers line that he wasn't a member of an organized political party - he was a Democrat.
``Philosophically I'm a Democrat, but not an old-line liberal,'' he continues, noting that he's not a member of any Democratic organiza-tions. ``Democrats in the past were not as concerned with law enforcement as they should have been.''
Holder prefers to devote his spare time to building community alliances. He speaks frequently to neighborhood groups, explaining the work of his office and how citizens can help police and prosecutors. At a recent neighborhood meeting, he outlined a proposal to boost the sentence for witness intimidation to life in prison, noting that citizens' fear of reporting crimes hinders police.
Holder is unique among US attorneys. Not only does he prosecute federal crimes, he also, because of D.C.'s status as a federal enclave, serves as district attorney for the city and so has jurisdiction over most local crime as well. It makes for a heavy and disparate case load that keeps his staff of over 300 lawyers busy.
Holder has also instituted a community-policing-style arrangement in his office, in which prosecutors are assigned to particular parts of the city and get to know the people there.
Outside of work, Holder is active in the organization Concerned Black Men, whose members mentor young African- American males. In addition, his office has ``adopted'' a nearby elementary school, a first for the US attorney's office here.
At home in his high-income D.C. neighborhood, Holder relaxes with the new girl in his life, one-year-old daughter Maya (named by Holder's wife for poet Maya Angelou).
Though it's the Rostenkowski case that has put his name on the national political map - a case he will not discuss with the media - Holder says he hasn't spent most of his time on that since taking office last October. ``I spend a lot of time lobbying on the local side about homicide,'' he says.