By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008
Rep. Charles B. Rangel, facing two controversies in as many weeks, called yesterday for an ethics committee investigation of his fundraising for an academic center that bears his name. But he said the panel should not delve into his rental of four New York apartments at below-market rates.
In a 50-minute news conference, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee said he did nothing wrong in seeking meetings to ask for corporate and foundation contributions for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York or sending letters on House stationery to do so.
Some ethics experts have called the entreaties troubling because some of the corporations and individuals the New York Democrat has approached, including insurance giant American International Group, have business interests before his committee. The panel has broad jurisdiction over tax and trade matters.
Yesterday, however, Rangel focused mainly on the narrow question of whether his use of House stationery violated ethics rules that prohibit lawmakers from using official resources to raise money for outside charities. The rules specifically ban the implied endorsement that accompanies the use of congressional letterhead. Rangel, 78, said he did not ask for money in the letters. He said they were intended to encourage recipients such as Donald Trump "to meet with City College to learn more about the program."
"I wouldn't have done it if I thought the rules were unclear, but to make certain that even reporters can understand it, I want to go back to the ethics committee and make it even more clear for those that can't find anything else to write about," he said.
The congressman repeatedly criticized The Washington Post for scrutinizing his fundraising and said that he will ask the newspaper for a public apology if the ethics panel vindicates him.
"I don't really think the Washington Post story on this is going to do anything to my political career," Rangel said. "But I do believe if members [of Congress] think that writing letters like this and encouraging people to meet with not-for-profits, if they think, 'Remember what happened to Rangel,' I want them to say, 'Yeah, and Rangel whupped their butts, too, didn't he? "
The congressman also is facing controversy back home. The New York Times reported last Friday that he pays below-market rent on four apartments in a Harlem luxury building. City and state guidelines require such dwellings to be used as a primary residence, and he said Monday that he would give up one apartment that he uses as a campaign office.
Rangel said the ethics panel should not examine whether his housing arrangement amounts to a gift or special treatment from the building's developer.
"Where I live and how I live, if it's legal, I think that's a personal issue," he said.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington separately have called for an ethics investigation into the congressman's fundraising for the Rangel Center. The group also plans to ask the ethics committee and the Federal Election Commission to investigate Rangel's apartment rentals. Another group, the National Legal and Policy Center, also has asked the FEC to investigate.
Rangel has said that legislative business never comes up in his conversations with potential donors to the City College project.
Asked yesterday whether his meetings with them create even the appearance of impropriety, he said: "I don't get involved in some subjective stuff. I want to get involved in: Did I violate the spirit of the law and any ethical standards that we have in the House of Representatives? After that, if you have nothing else to do, we'll talk about my appearance."