Rep. Charles Rangel gets his day in court, faces an unexpected loss

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Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) once again is in the news for ethics violations. For more than two years, Rangel, the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been the target of an investigation involving a growing list of charges.

After being forced to resign from the position as chief tax writer for the United States last February, his day in court finally arrived. In a nearly unanimous vote, the House Ethics Committee recommended that Rangel will be censured before the full House.

Here’s a summary of the key issues that have plagued Rangel:

  • He and five others from the Congressional Black Caucus were admonished by the Ethics Committee in February for accepting trips to St. Maarten that were corporate sponsored, in violation of House rules. The others were cleared of charges. Rangel was not cleared and said he would pay back the money.
  • He failed to report income from the rental of his villa in the Dominican Republic or pay tax on that income. He also did not report the income to Congress, in violation of House Ethics rules, according to the Office of the Clerk of the House). Filing a false disclosure form can result in civil penalties and a five-year prison sentence.
  • TheNew York Times reported that he failed to pay interest on a loan to buy the villa, a loan made by Theodore Khell, a major contributor to Rangel’s campaigns.
  • The Harlem congressman was charged with using one of his four rent-stabilized apartments as a campaign office, in violation of state and city ordinances. TheNew York Times reported that Rangel received a discount on rent of about $30,000 per year, yet did not report these amounts on his income.
  • He is accused of using taxpayer-paid stationery to solicit support for an education center that would bear his name, a violation of the House gifts ban.
  • Rangel is charged with violating postal service laws and franking commission regulations, presumably to avoid the payment of postage.

By the time the Ethics Committee met, the list had grown to include 13 charges. Last week, Rangel walked out of the hearing, stating that he could not afford an attorney to defend himself against the charges, and needed time to set up a legal defense fund. He’d already spent $2 million in legal fees, he said, and would need another $1 million.  

Supporters told the New York Daily News that the committee’s serious approach to this hearing took Rangel by surprise. He always believed the committee would opt for a much lighter punishment, such as a written reprimand.

At Thursday’s hearing, he apologized and asked the committee for leniency and understanding.

“The fact that for 17 years taxes were paid to the Dominican Republic has nothing to do with the facts in this case as it relates to my conduct, but I would believe that the accountant that testified would have shared with you how mistakes were made that I assume responsibility for, because whether it’s a lawyer, a CPA, or accountant, I signed the paper,” Rangel said.

“But it would really help, and I don’t think it’s out of line if the committee didn’t say it before, that you could put in that report no matter what you agreed the sanctions should be, that your member was not corrupt and did not seek and did not gain anything personally for the bad conduct that I’ve had. That’s all I’ve ever asked when I referred the whole thing to this committee", he said. "All I asked was that you make a point of investigating everything. I volunteered to have a forensic accountant for 20 years to look over taxes, to look over all of the things that should have been done and corrected all of them. But that is not an example that I would want to set for other members of Congress.”

The Ethics Committee concluded that none of Rangel’s misdeeds brought him personal gain, and no criminal charges will be brought. Yet, in a vote of 9 to 1, he was found guilty on 11 of the 13 charges, and the committee delivered a harsher than usual punishment in the form of a House censure.

A House censure has been likened to “an embarrassing public dressing-down by the House speaker.” Rangel will be the first lawmaker in 27 years to face this consequence. The common belief among insiders seems to be that the House is attempting to raise the bar on conduct. The full vote of the House is expected to take place after Thanksgiving.

Melanie Sloan, head of the Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, told the New York Daily News that on their own, none of Rangel’s failures would have brought the condemnation of censure. But, as the violations continued to mount, the scenario changed.

Sloan believes that because of the long list of charges, Rangel should resign from Congress. She also told reporters that the congressman hurt his own fate by dragging the case out so long. "I think Rangel really made the committee suffer and this was payback to some extent", Sloan said.

Regardless of the charges, Rangel is not without a great deal of support. Al Sharpton, a Harlem resident and civil rights leader, called Rangel’s ethics battle a “political crucifixion." At a party fundraiser and celebration for Rangel’s 80th birthday, he said Rangel’s fate should be determined by voters, according to the Associated Press.

"If and when it's time for Charlie Rangel to go, we'll decide that. It won't be imposed by people outside the community", Sharpton said.

Rangel was reelected earlier this month in a landslide, receiving 81 percent of the vote.

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