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The $64,000 Entreaty for a Portrait of the Chairman

By Mary Ann Akers
Thursday, August 30, 2007

He's been chairman for only eight months, but already Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) is more than daydreaming about what his official Ways and Means Committee portrait will look like. He knows one thing: It'll be top of the line.

In perhaps the most thorough and earnest letter ever written on the subject of a member of Congress's portrait, Rangel's campaign attorney sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission asking permission to use either campaign or leadership political action committee money to pay for the chairman's grand portrait.

The lawyer, Phu Huynh, wrote, "The cost of commissioning the portrait of Representative Rangel is estimated by the artist to be $64,500, including the cost of a custom frame. . . . Portrait artists determine fees based largely upon reputation, but the size of the subject and detail required also factor heavily in the pricing."

And lest anyone have concerns, no nepotism rules will be violated in the painting of his portrait. "The artist receiving the commission payment is not a member of Representative Rangel's family," Huynh wrote.

So serious is Rangel about his portrait that he consulted an "art broker for eight museum-quality portrait artists" who advised that the cost is "consistent with other top portrait artists." Although the broker's Web site lists a base range of $30,000 to $50,000, "the estimated cost of $64,500 for Representative Rangel's portrait reflects a three-quarter body length size, important details and a custom frame," the letter said.

Huynh, a lawyer with Oldaker, Biden and Belair, suggested that using campaign or PAC funds is preferable to the old-fashioned method of committee chairmen having to raise money for their portraits from lobbyists who have business interests before their committees. This way it "lessens the concern that lobbyists or others seeking influence may make unregulated contributions that may benefit a member of Congress."

The letter doesn't say, but we're told that the artist doing the portrait is Simmie Knox, a preeminent artist who painted portraits of former president Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

As for getting an early start on his portrait, Rangel spokesman Emile Milne said, "As you may have heard him say many times, Mr. Rangel doesn't buy green bananas."

Beleaguered Fliers, I'm With You

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) says he's going to use his brush with air rage to become active in pushing a passenger bill of rights.

Finally ending his silence on his arrest Aug. 19 at Washington Dulles International Airport, Filner released a statement yesterday about an altercation he allegedly had with a United Airlines baggage employee. Filner was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery after, police say, he pushed aside an airline employee's outstretched arm.

"I was tired after a delayed flight and frustrated by the subsequent further delay of the entire flight's baggage," Filner said. "But I did not want things to turn out as they did, with offense obviously taken and much misunderstanding. This is an episode that I regret and hope to move beyond."

That was the extent of his official statement. But the congressman, who turns 65 next week, went further in an interview with a columnist for his local paper, the San Diego Union Tribune.

He said the airlines are driving him, and everyone else, for that matter, pretty crazy these days with the chronic delays and lost luggage. "You've got a group of people who think you're misusing your position as a congressman, and you've got a group of people who understand the airlines are so -- so dismissive of their customers that we're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore."

And that's why the congressman is going to become a champion of the little guy and encourage passage of legislation to give passengers more leverage against the airlines. "I'm more committed than ever," he told the Union Tribune.

Did he feel obligated as a congressman to take charge that night at Dulles?

"I sort of did," he said. "I represented my hundred passengers just to get some information. They made no announcement. They gave us no explanation. Everyone was grumbling, and so I said, 'Let me go find out.' That's all I tried to do."

And for the record, Filner added of the allegation of assault and battery: "It never happened. I haven't touched somebody in 65 years violently -- including my kids!"

Filner will have a chance to tell all of this to a judge on Oct. 2, when he's scheduled to appear in Loudoun General District Court.

Congressman Sicced

The latest victim of the campaign against dogfighting is Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), who got bitten by an op-ed article in his local newspaper, the Bergen Record, written by Michael Markarian, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. Noting that "America has no tolerance for the cruel and degrading spectacle of dog fighting," Markarian wrote that "Garrett voted in March against legislation to upgrade penalties for illegal transportation of fighting dogs -- the very crime [Michael] Vick was charged with -- and he was the only member of Congress from the northeast United States who took that position."

Markarian says Garrett's district has the sixth-largest number of Humane Society members out of the 435 congressional districts. (The district of Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, ranks first, but he voted for the bill, so he's safe from the group's attacks.) The Humane Society of the United States has been organizing protests outside members' district offices and at fundraisers and town hall meetings, and has been furiously writing letters and op-ed articles in newspapers. And Markarian says the group is planning to hold a protest against Garrett soon, though no date has been set.

Garrett seems to think the group has more bark than bite, and he resents being compared to the disgraced Atlanta Falcons quarterback.

"Michael Vick has committed egregious acts towards animals and should get punished for his crimes," Garrett told us in an e-mail through his spokeswoman, adding: "My previous vote in regards to animal fighting was to keep federal law enforcement from taking over state crimes. Prosecutors and officers are already stretched thin. For instance, over the last 10 years, federal courts have dealt with a 172% increase in sexual offence cases, largely due to increases in prosecutions for sexually explicit materials such as child pornography. With almost 70,000 victims and families waiting for justice across the country (over 1,000 in New Jersey alone), it doesn't seem reasonable to prolong their suffering by creating a law that would make actions that are already illegal and prosecutable under state laws, a federal offense."

Akers writes the Sleuth blog on washingtonpost.com.

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