WASHINGTON – House investigators accused veteran New York Rep. Charles Rangel of 13 violations of congressional ethics standards on Thursday, throwing a cloud over his four-decade political career and raising worries for fellow Democrats about the fall elections.
The allegations include failure to report rental income from vacation property in the Dominican Republic and hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional income and assets on his financial disclosure statements.
Other charges focused on Rangel’s use of congressional staff and stationery to raise money for a college center in New York named after him; accepting favors and benefits from the donors that may have influenced his congressional actions; use of a subsidized New York apartment as a campaign office instead of a residence; and misuse of the congressional free mail privilege.
“Even though they are serious charges, I’m prepared to prove that the only thing I’ve ever had in my 50 years of public service is service,” Rangel told reporters Thursday night. “That’s what I’ve done and if I’ve been overzealous providing that service, I can’t make an excuse for the serious violations.”
The charges came as lawyers for Rangel and the House ethics committee worked out a plea deal, according to people familiar with the talks. But Republicans on the ethics committee indicated it was too late.
The deal between the lawyers has little meaning if the committee members don’t approve it, and Republicans insisted — at the first meeting of a House panel deciding Rangel’s fate — that the case go forward with an ethics trial. The panel is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
“Mr. Rangel was given multiple opportunities to settle this matter. Instead, he chose to move forward to the public trial phase,” said Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama, the senior Republican on the ethics panel.
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Chairman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has made clear that she wants the committee to be unanimous — leaving little chance for agreement without Rangel capitulating on virtually all counts.
Many Democrats had urged Rangel to settle the case to avoid the prospect of televised hearings right before November congressional elections that will determine which party controls Congress next year.
However, as Thursday’s public airing of the charges drew nearer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seem resigned to the case proceeding.
“The chips will have to fall where they may politically,” she told reporters. Pursuing ethics cases against House members is “a serious responsibility that we have,” she said.
The alleged violations of House standards of conduct also include using congressional letterhead to solicit donations for a center for public service to bear Rangel’s name on the New York campus of the City College of New York.
Rangel was also accused of accepting a rent-stabilized property in Manhattan for his campaign office and initially not paying federal taxes on the Dominican Republic property.
The ethics panel said Rangel failed to report rental income on his original tax returns for 1998 through 2006 from the Dominican Republic villa. It also said he violated federal laws in addition to House ethics rules, including the 1989 Ethics Reform Act, Postal Service laws and government service codes.
The ethics charges, agreed upon after a two-year probe, were read in a public session of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics committee is formally known.
Rangel, 80, did not attend.
In New York’s Harlem, where Rangel is the only congressman most residents have ever known, two people reflected different opinions of the veteran lawmaker, who has a mid-September primary.
David Hendrickson said Rangel should step down. “He’s seen his day. He’s either not in touch with the community or insulated himself so that he doesn’t have to be in touch with the community,” Hendrickson said.
Michael Austin said it was unfortunate that Rangel’s career had been clouded by the allegations. “I think he’s been a wonderful congressman throughout the years,” Austin said, adding that he would vote again for Rangel “based on his previous record.”
The session set the stage for a committee trial, expected to be held in September. Democrats had hoped to avoid such a public confrontation as November elections approach.
“We live at a time when public skepticism about the institutions in our country is very high,” said Lofgren, the ethics committee chair.
She said it had been the panel’s goal “to by our actions rebuild and earn trust by the public and our colleagues.”
Republicans have been trying to turn the case into an indictment of Democratic leadership. Rangel stepped down earlier this year as chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, one of the top posts in the House.
But Bonner told colleagues, “No one, regardless of their partisan stripes, should rejoice.”
“It is the duty of the House to punish its members for disorderly behavior. As such, this is truly a sad day,” the Alabama Republican said.
Under the tentative plea deal, it was not immediately clear how many of the 13 charges of ethical violations Rangel agreed to accept.
The panel judging Rangel includes eight members, four from each party. Thus, for any deal to be accepted it must be approved by at least one Republican.
In the frantic hours leading up to the meeting, Rangel’s lawyer, Leslie Kiernan, talked to attorneys for the panel about how to avoid a trial for the 40-year veteran.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the panel that will try Rangel, said that the Democrat had been “given the opportunity to negotiate a settlement during the investigation phase.”
However, he said, that phase is now over. “We are now in the trial phase,” he said.
A congressional trial could be avoided only if Rangel admitted to substantial violations, or resigned.
Punishment could range from a report criticizing his conduct to a reprimand or censure by the House, or a vote to expel him — which is highly unlikely. Any agreement would have to be approved by Rangel and ethics committee members.
“Sixty years ago I survived a Chinese attack in North Korea and as a result I haven’t had a bad day since,” Rangel told reporters earlier Thursday. “But today I have to reassess that statement.”