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ROSTENKOWSKI HOTLY DENIES LINK TO SCANDAL, HIRES TOP LEGAL TEAM

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Rep. Dan Rostenkowski on Saturday defiantly denounced "false and baseless" allegations that he received embezzled funds, and hired one of Washington's top criminal defense teams to represent him in the House Post Office scandal.

Making his first public statement since court papers linked him to an embezzlement scheme at the post office, a resolute Rostenkowski said the case would not interfere with his crucial role in deficit-reduction negotiations."I want to make it absolutely clear that I have committed no crime and have engaged in no illegal or unethical conduct," the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee told reporters in his panel's cavernous hearing room.

Rostenkowski, who would not answer questions on advice of his lawyers, said he hired Robert Bennett and Carl Rauh as his new defense team.

Bennett represented former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who was pardoned before his Iran-Contra trial on charges of lying to prosecutors and Congress; prominent Washington lawyer Clark Clifford in the BCCI banking scandal; and Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott in a dispute over racially offensive remarks.

Bennett also worked on the government side as special counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee in cases involving Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., and five senators tied to convicted savings and loan figure Charles H. Keating Jr.

Rauh, who often teams with Bennett on his major cases, is a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, the top prosecutor's job in the capital.

Bennett came out swinging Saturday, expressing hope that "the chairman would be treated fairly" and saying he was "very troubled" that former U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens has commented on the case in interviews.

"He should keep his mouth shut about matters he handled in which he was U.S. attorney," Bennett said. Stephens accused the Clinton administration of delaying the case to protect Rostenkowski's role in the budget talks, and said lawmakers may have received "in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars" in the scandal.

But the ex-prosecutor said his comments on the amounts of money potentially involved were based on news accounts, not on his inside knowledge of the case.

Rostenkowski, D-Ill., has been under investigation for more than a year in the post office probe.