WASHINGTON — A special House of Representatives subcommittee on Thursday outlined 13 counts of ethics violations against Rep. Charles Rangel, the former chairman of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. The charges place his political career in jeopardy and could put Democrats on the defensive as November's elections approach.
The case against the 80-year-old, 20-term Democrat from New York unfolded in a trial-like setting of a House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct subcommittee following incorrect reports that Rangel's lawyers had struck a deal to avoid an embarrassing public reading of the charges against him.
"Mr. Rangel . . . was given opportunities to negotiate a settlement under the investigation phase," said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, a member of the eight-person subcommittee. "We are now in the trial phase."
In a large hearing room in the bowels of the Capitol Visitors Center, the subcommittee detailed the 13 charges that stem from four matters: That he solicited donations for the Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York, seeking money from foundations and corporations that had interests before the House; that he made "errors and omissions" in failing to disclose $600,000 on his financial disclosure statements; that he used a rent-controlled apartment to house his campaign committees; and that he failed to report and pay taxes on rental income on a beach villa he owns in the Dominican Republic.
Rangel's legal team, in a written response, denied any wrongdoing in connection with the Rangel Center, and pointed out that former and current lawmakers such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have centers named after them and lent their names to raise "millions of dollars from corporate donors" for the facilities.
Rangel's team said the use of the rent-controlled apartment wasn't a favor to Rangel by the owner. Instead, the statement said, Rangel was doing the owner a favor by paying maximum rent and helping lower the building's vacancy rate.
The statement challenged the financial allegations but conceded that "In retrospect, Congressman Rangel did not devote sufficient attention to the preparation of his original financial disclosures."
Rangel wasn't present at the half-hour session.
In documents, the subcommittee made it known that Rangel has been less than cooperative, often delaying in producing documents requested by investigators.
"Even when the delay was not significant, (Rangel's) failure to abide by the deadlines set by the investigative subcommittee was troubling," the subcommittee wrote.
Still, Democratic and Republican subcommittee members said they took no joy in prosecuting the affable, backslapping Harlem clubhouse politician almost everyone affectionately calls "Charlie."
"He earned the Purple Heart and Bronze Star (in the Korean War) for his bravery. He was a fatherless high school dropout who went from pushing a hand truck in the Garden District of New York City to becoming one of the most powerful — and well-liked — figures on Capitol Hill," said Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Ala., the ranking Republican on the subcommittee. "But Mr. Rangel's life story is not why we are here today . . . "
The subcommittee's statement of alleged violations said Rangel improperly sent letters on congressional letterhead to over 100 foundations, including the Verizon Foundation, the Goldman Sachs Foundation, New York Life Foundation and others requesting gifts of $30 million — or $6 million a year over five years — for the Rangel Center.
"Respondent's (Rangel's) staff worked with CCNY on an ongoing basis, assisting with earmarks and meetings between the Respondent's and potential donors," according to the committee's findings. "The work was done on House property, using official resources such as staff time, official House phones and e-mail accounts, and other office equipment and supplies."
On financial disclosures, the subcommittee said that Rangel failed to report rental income from 1998 to 2000 and again in 2004 from a Harlem brownstone that he owned.
He also didn't report income from property he owns at the Punta Cana Yacht Club in the Dominican Republic from 1998 to 2000 and for 2006 and 2007, according to the subcommittee. Rangel also failed to disclose that in 1993, the management of the Punta Cana Yacht Club forgave the remaining interest on the mortgage of his villa.
Ironically, in a letter to the yacht club in 1993 seeking information about his unit, Rangel wrote: "As I mentioned to you, the House Ethics Committee requires the disclosures by members of Congress of any assets and unearned income and while I enjoy a good relationship with the Committee's Chairman it certainly would be politically embarrassing if I were unable to provide an accurate accounting of my holdings."
Republican efforts to portray Rangel's ethics situation as the personification of what's wrong with Washington forced Rangel to relinquish the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee in March.
GOP officials have continued to use Rangel to hammer away at Democrats by reminding voters of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's promise to "drain the swamp" of Washington political corruption.
Regarding Rangel, Pelosi, D-Calif., said at her weekly news conference: "The chips will have to fall where they may politically."
However, she defended her "swamp" comment, saying that the House was a far worse place ethics-wise under Republican rule than it is now.
"We have made a tremendous difference, and I take great pride in that," Pelosi said. "Are there going to be individual issues to be dealt with? Yes. I never said that there wouldn't be."
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