Rangel’s Day in Court

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Actually, it won’t quite be a court — though it could be down the road. A House ethics subcommittee has found that the erstwhile Ways & Means chairman likely violated House rules, a decision Rangel contested. So, in order to resolve the matter, an “adjudicatory subcommittee” must be convened to hear out the case. The first hearing will be on July 29 and it will be open to the public, as is tradition.

The last time such an open process was used was for former Rep. James Traficant, an Ohio Democrat who was expelled from the House in 2002 for taking bribes, racketeering, filing false tax returns and forcing aides to perform household chores on his Ohio farm and DC houseboat (which was, coincidentally, parked not far from Duke Cunningham’s houseboat). Traficant served seven years in prison and is now a radio host in Ohio. He recently filed papers to make an independent run for his old seat.

Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay skipped such a step when his ethics investigation went right from the exploratory phase to admonishment — a first in ethics committee history.

Rangel first asked the committee two years ago to look into newspaper allegations that he’d failed to report income from a Caribbean rental, that he used Congressional letterhead to solicit donations for a charity in his name and that he broke New York rent subsidy laws. The alleged tax lapses were particularly worrisome as the chairman of the Ways & Means Committee is Congress’s top tax writer. Politico reported that Rangel was seen arguing with ethics committee chair Zoe Lofgren shortly before today’s announcement was made. Zofgren had, reportedly, been encouraging Rangel to follow a DeLay route and skip the adjudicatory process. As of August 2009, Rangel had spent more than $1 million in legal fees defending his actions to the committee. If he’s found in violation of House rules the committee’s evidence could be turned over to prosecutors to pursue a criminal case.

The investigation into Rangel and his yielding of the Ways & Means gavel while the process dragged out has been considered a victory by ethics watchdogs and a sign that the newly-formed Office of Congressional Ethics has been a success. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, under pressure from groups including the Congressional Black Caucus, is reportedly considering weakening OCE or disbanding it altogether after the next elections.