Hey Congress: Stop Pilfering U.S. History

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It's been a rule in the House of Representatives since 1953, but very few lawmakers have given a hoot about--or even knew of--a ban on taking committee documents when they retire. Some, especially prominent committee chairmen, give them to local colleges. Others just store them in their basements.

ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO FOR USN&WRConsider former Rep. Peter Rodino, who chaired the Watergate panel that sought to impeach former President Nixon. He kept some and donated others to Seton Hall University. Two of the most important letters Nixon sent Rodino, those in which the ex-prez snubbed a subpoena for more Watergate tapes, he gave to a historian pal years ago.

Well, when that historian offered them for auction to help pay some medical bills, the feds moved in and for the first time cited the House rule to recover the papers after Bill Panagopulos, president of Alexander Autographs, verified their authenticity. And now, say those involved, House officials are hunting for other awol papers. "The law being what it is, I was obliged to surrender the letters. I just hope they don't end up in a dust-covered box," says Panagopulos, who valued the letters signed by Nixon at $500,000. The historian's lawyer says there's a double standard at play. Congressmen aren't targeted, only private citizens or groups who have the papers. "It's not fair," says lawyer Robert Goldman.