At a somber hearing of the House ethics committee – held in a larger room in the Congressional Visitors Center to accommodate the throng of press – the subcommittee in charge of investigating Charlie Rangel for the last 21 months referred 13 alleged violations of House rules against the former Ways & Means chairman to the full committee. “One of the most difficult tasks assigned to a member of Congress is to sit in judgment of a colleague,” said Rep. Gene Green, the Texas Democrat who led the subcommittee investigation. “The task is even more difficult when the subject of the investigation has befriended and mentored so many new members of Congress.”
The subcommittee had expected to finish their investigation by the end of 2008, Bonner said, though Rangel’s lawyers seem to have drawn the process out as it evolved. The subcommittee emphasized both in the documents released Thursday and in the hearing that Rangel was given every chance to respond, was treated fairly and could have settled at any time.
Rangel, though, has insisted on his innocence, even after the ongoing investigation forced him to give up his Ways & Means gavel. Just before the hearing began, the Harlem Democrat noted that the charges lobbed against him amounted to a series of misdemeanors. “While this is not a good day for me the only good thing I can find is that there’s no inference of corruption (in the charges) at all,” he told reporters leaving the House floor.
Indeed, the subcommittee is not alleging overt corruption, though the 13 charges pieced together certainly paint a picture of a member bending, if not breaking rules for his own benefit. The charges are:
Conduct in violation of the solicitation and gift ban; conduct in violation of Code of Ethics for Government Service; conduct in violation of the House Gift Rule; conduct in violation of Postal Service laws and Franking Commission regulations; conduct in violation of Franking Statute; conduct in violation of House Office Building Commission regulations; conduct in violation of the Purpose Law and the member’s Congressional Handbook; conduct in violation of the Letterhead Rule; conduct in violation of the Ethics in Government Act and House Rule XXVI; conduct in violation of Code of Ethics for Government Service, cl. 5; conduct in violation of Code of Ethics for Government Service, cl.2; conduct in violation of the Code of Conduct: letter and spirit of House rules; conduct in violation of the Code of Conduct: conduct reflecting the discreditably of the House.
The charges focused on three areas: Rangel’s use of a rent-subsided apartment as an office when the apartment was only meant to be let at that rate as a primary residence; Rangel’s failure to disclose income relating to a rental property in Punta Cana; and allegations that Rangel used congressional staff and resources to solicit donations to a non-profit center in his name from donors – donors that he then allegedly helped in votes according to some reports.
Even before the charges were unveiled, Republicans said that they were akin to catching Al Capone on mail fraud. “The fact is, the swamp has not been drained,” House Minority Leader John Boehner told reporters Thursday morning. There are “very serious allegations relating to Mr. Rangel’s conduct,” said Rep. Mike McCaul, a Texas Republican on the ethics committee. The committee is evenly split, as is tradition, with four Republicans and four Democrats.
Democratic leaders seemed resigned to the process, even though reports circulated of frantic attempts to make an 11th hour deal to avoid an open trial. “Let the political chips fall where they may,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters, even if the outcome harms Democratic candidates. Pelosi said the trial showed that the tough ethics process she put in place when Democrats took control of the House in 2007 “is working.”
The timing could not be worse for Dems worried that the ethics smear will spread ahead of what was already going to be a tough election season. Already members are giving Rangel back his donations to their campaigns and at least two Democrats have called on him to resign.
Rangel, 80, did not appear at today’s hearing and none of the committee members spoke to the press afterwards. Indeed, none looked very psyched to be there in the first place. “This is truly a sad day, which no one, regardless of their partisan stripes, should rejoice,” said Alabama Republican Jo Bonner, who served as the ranking Republican on the investigatory subcommittee. The House is expected to break today or tomorrow for a six week summer recess. The trial is expected to begin when Congress returns in September. Rangel can choose to settle at any time, though if a settlement were to be made it likely would’ve come before the release of the formal charges and evidence.