James Rogan: Rogue Prosecutor

Republican Congressman James Rogan, who currently serves as one of the 13 House managers presenting the impeachment case against Bill Clinton, has never let the troubles of others stand in the way of his own advancement.

Rogan’s first elected office, a seat in the state Assembly, opened up when his friend and mentor Pat Nolan pleaded guilty to three bribery charges. The guilty pleas notwithstanding, Rogan said he believed Nolan was the innocent victim of a frame-up at the hands of Democrats. Then, when Nolan went to prison, Rogan jumped in to fill the void.

Two years later, House Speaker Newt Gingrich determined that 12-term Republican Congressman Carlos Moorhead lacked the requisite blood lust for partisan politics and began denying him meaningful committee seats. Moorhead took the hint and chose not to run again, extending his blessing to Rogan’s next step up. Rogan was promptly named one of Gingrich’s assistant majority whips, assigned to count votes and keep the party corraled, and appointed to a highly desirable seat on the Commerce Committee.

Even Sonny Bono’s death was a boon to Jim Rogan. When the freshman congressman skied into a tree instead of around it, he left a vacancy on the powerful Judiciary Committee — a spot Rogan was appointed to fill.

There was one promotion Rogan won without having to step over a corpse. He did, however, have to reject ideological principles he’d been touting for years. In 1990, at the age of 33, he went from being a Los Angeles County prosecutor to becoming the youngest Municipal Court judge in the state. Some cynics say that wouldn’t have happened if — 18 months earlier, during the Bush-Dukakis presidential race — young Democrat Rogan hadn’t been very publicly reborn as a Republican. His sudden conversion was announced in a press conference at a state-party convention, with then-Senator Pete Wilson and the Republican state chairman at his side. This led to a congratulatory correspondence with Ronald Reagan himself, which was later released to the media. Soon thereafter, Governor George Deukmejian appointed Rogan to the bench.

Rogan’s 27th Congressional District includes the neighboring cities of Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena, for decades strongholds of conservative Republicanism. As an assemblyman, he represented much the same district. Back then, regardless of age, race, party or means, few left one of Rogan’s Town Hall sessions feeling that the man was in office for any reason other than to crush the power of special interests, bring common sense to the government and put an end to narrowly partisan politics. Rogan liked to tell crowds of his deep respect for Willie Brown, former Democratic speaker of the Assembly. "He’s smart and he has integrity, and I don’t care what party he’s from," Rogan said. (Of course, this didn’t stop Rogan from later ridiculing his campaign opponents for being "pawns" of the liberal Willie Brown.)

Rogan audiences are routinely made privy to insider anecdotes that reveal the seedier sides of public office. "The average day a member of the Assembly works on the state’s business isn’t more than three or four hours long," Rogan told listeners at one meeting. "The rest of the day is spent on the phone in rented offices or apartments near the Capitol, trying to raise money for the next election." And voters were impressed by his candid admission during a re-election race: "I am part of the problem." Time after time, the electorate has cheered Rogan’s pledge to draft new laws and policies regulating such behavior, and persuade — or coerce — his colleagues to sign on.

However, the real gut-grabber of Rogan’s Assembly stint came when he took up the cause of the "paddling bill," a call for graffiti vandals to receive 10 whacks as punishment for defacing property. Although his Assembly colleagues ultimately rejected the idea, no other proposal would gain him as much press.

When Jim Rogan was still a kid, he began amassing political memorabilia, from campaign buttons and posters to public and personal correspondence. His collection, representing more than 200 years of American democracy, has grown to mythic proportions, and has served as décor in every public office he’s tenanted.

So when local pundits were trying to predict whether Rogan would leave his barely warm seat in the Assembly to run for Congress in 1996, the consensus was that he couldn’t resist a chance to follow in the footsteps of his heroes and icons. In addition to bringing the artifacts of history to his desk, he’d bring his desk to the very sources of the history he’d studied and revered.

Early in Rogan’s congressional term, few of his constituents bothered to notice that he was not practicing what he had been preaching — even though the House voting record of the guy who had talked so much about "reaching across the aisle" was ranked 100 percent favorable by the Christian Coalition, while scoring a zero with the American Civil Liberties Union. In Congress, Rogan spoke out in favor of school-voucher programs, meanwhile deriding the "Patients’ Bill of Rights" as the "Trial Lawyers Bill of Rights."


During his Assembly term, Rogan had rejected partisan politics to support legislation allowing the medical use of marijuana. He calmed nervous constituents with an explanation few could fault: a moving personal account of a cousin ravaged by a terminal illness, a loved one given six months to live whose only relief from pain and other symptoms came through marijuana. Rogan said that he believed marijuana had helped his cousin live another 10 years.

Then, when a resolution opposing the medical use of marijuana came before Congressman Rogan, he changed his tune and endorsed a resolution unconditionally condemning all medical use of marijuana. Rogan insisted that his vote did not constitute a reversal of his position, but was an indirect swipe at California’s Proposition 215, a medical-use initiative passed by voters in 1996 which, Rogan said, allowed "any medical practitioner to use it . . . That could mean an acupuncturist, or a witch doctor." So much for the sick cousin.

In 1997, when Speaker Gingrich was found to have lied to Congress and committed a variety of ethical breaches for which he was fined $300,000, Rogan defended him on the House floor. ("I rise to urge Mr. Gingrich . . . not to be cowed or intimidated by any lynch mob out to obtain a result disproportionate to the transgression that the House found," Rogan intoned.)

But as the news media and official Washington began to focus on President Clinton’s own peculiar brand of ethical breaches, those same constituents began seeing Judiciary Committee member Rogan on the national news programs, where he never missed an opportunity to assure the nation, in appropriately somber tones, that Clinton would enjoy the presumption of innocence from at least one former prosecutor and judge. But despite such assurances, the folks back home were becoming skeptical. As the rumblings about impeachment grew louder, letters to the editor of the Glendale News-Press, the newspaper of record for Rogan’s hometown, began to take an uncharacteristic turn toward the critical.

Also, in 1998, there had been Barry Gordon — actor, lawyer and former president of the Screen Actors Guild — in whom Rogan finally had found a capable challenger. In campaign speeches all over the district, Gordon had pointed out how, despite the rhetoric of impartiality, Rogan was voting the party line time and again, never once straying from the priorities and preferences of Republican extremists. ("Mr. Gordon can make light of . . . me doing my duty as described by the Constitution," Rogan said, "but I am upholding my oath of office.")

Gordon’s criticism of Rogan’s record — on health care, Social Security, tobacco legislation (after Rogan had claimed that the danger posed to teenagers by cigarettes is comparable to that posed by eating candy or skateboarding) and other issues — had been answered by Rogan’s "revelations" about a campaign photographer who had sued Gordon in small-claims court for $2,250, and about the fact that Gordon had declared bankruptcy in 1995. Gordon responded by saying his debts had been paid, not "discharged," and lambasted Rogan for mailing out copies of the bankruptcy records emblazoned with Gordon’s home address.

As Rogan continued to answer questions and charges related to impeachment with his now-familiar refrain about his duty to find the truth and see justice done, folks seemed ever less inclined to buy it. "At one time, letters faulting Jim Rogan were rare here," says Rick Arthur, executive editor of the Glendale News-Press. "But once they began coming in from constituents unhappy about his role in the impeachment process, it seemed to open the door for criticism on other fronts."

Rogan’s claimed dedication to bipartisan government and integrity, ridiculed as insincere and hypocritical for years by his Democratic opponents, suddenly began to lose credibility with everyday citizens as well. Despite advocating that creationism be taught in public schools, opposing virtually every proposal for limiting access to guns and insisting that legalized abortion is "helping to erode the nation’s moral fabric," Rogan had hitherto convinced the 27th District that he was a moderate who rejected the politics of division, who was dedicated to doing the "right" thing, not just the " thing.

The election came not a moment too soon for Rogan. Although the strain of trying to impeach a president, pass a budget and run for office all at the same time was becoming intense, he squeaked in for a second term, beating Gordon by 4.29 percent, or roughly 6,827 votes out of 140,000. The following month he was back on the House floor.


So how is the 27th District responding to the spectacle of its congressman carrying the rope to the hanging party? According to local officeholders, not well. Scott Wildman, the Democrat elected to the state Assembly seat Rogan left for Congress, maintains, "There’s as much disgust over what he’s doing as there is with the president’s behavior . . . Rogan is pandering to a small number of extremists in his party, and I’m hearing about it throughout the district."

While at least one among the district’s pols — Glendale City Councilman Larry Zarian, host of a conservative radio talk show broadcast from Glendale — claims that the constituents he talks to unreserv edly support Rogan and are demanding impeachment, Burbank City Councilman Bill Wiggins is probably closer in spirit to the district’s Republican moderates. "Everything I hear in the city reflects what I hear about the national polls," says Wiggins. "People don’t want to spend another minute on the impeachment, and they don’t think Jim Rogan should spend any more time on it."

However, Wiggins says, even though many local Republicans do oppose impeachment, just as many are convinced that Rogan is sincere in his fervor. "I don’t think he’s putting it on. I think he believes in his heart that he’s doing the right thing, what his conscience says he has to do," says Wiggins. "I just don’t know anyone who agrees with [Rogan’s] conscience."

Wiggins is adamant about one concern shared by many: the dedication of so much time and effort to something that, if not for Rogan, is for many in the U.S. Congress a purely partisan battle. "If Congress put this kind of work, time and money into any issue you name," says Wiggins, "we would see some real problems solved."

Democrat Adam Schiff is the state senator whose district overlaps Rogan’s, and it was Schiff who lost to Rogan when they both chased the Assembly seat left vacant when Pat Nolan went to prison. (It was the first time either had run for office.) "I’ve been getting a lot of calls to step in," Schiff says. "After what Rogan has done with the office, I’m being asked to run for Congress."

Schiff considers the impeachment proceedings in the context of his own experience as a former assistant U.S. attorney who never lost a case in six years, including some that grabbed headlines: "It’s hard to imagine a flimsier case for . . . perjury rising to the level of an impeachable offense. A horrible precedent has been set."

Until now, Rogan’s political future seemed bright. He once talked openly about yearning to serve as California’s attorney general, and many took that to be a not-so-subtle hint that he had his eye on the Governor’s Office. When Rogan began, in his first year on the Hill, winning committee seats that some members of Congress wait a lifetime to see, a gubernatorial race began looking to many like small potatoes, a step on the road to even higher office.

Last month, The People’s Will, a group dedicated to raising money to oust Rogan and his ilk in the 2000 elections, was born in the 27th District. "We cannot vote against Ken Starr [or] Linda Tripp," the appeal read. "But we can remove those who support them and their witch-hunting tactics." The organizers are a screenwriter and a director who live in Burbank, and a recent story about their efforts in the Glendale News-Press resulted in calls to the paper from readers asking how they could help.

Rogan, who did not return phone calls requesting an interview for this story, has repeatedly acknowledged that with his role in the impeachment, he may be "slitting [his] own throat politically." Then why is he doing it? Is it, as Rogan maintains and his supporters believe, because it’s the right thing to do and therefore he has no choice? Or is it, as many partisan Democrats have charged, because he’s a minion of the extreme right, who are determined to oust — or at least humiliate — a president they despise?

"I don’t think it comes from being a true believer or an ambitious politician," says Wildman. "I think it’s about making a place for himself in the history books."

"He is making history," echoes Gordon. "He wants his cross-examination of Sidney Blumenthal before the Senate to be studied years from now. He wants to be the prosecutor who brought down a president."

Forget partisanship. Forget zealotry. Remember the memorabilia.

Rogan is a man who has made the study of political history a mission since boyhood, amassing artifacts that represent the richest textures of our government and its most representative figures, from the Founding Fathers to the footnotes. With his role in the impeachment of President Clinton, Congressman Jim Rogan has not only given history a reason to remember him — he’s become an item in his own collection.

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