By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; A05
Rep. Charles B. Rangel broke congressional gift rules by accepting trips to Caribbean conferences that were financed by corporate interests, the House ethics committee said Thursday.
While the panel did not find that the New York Democrat, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, knew about the corporate backing for the trips in 2007 and 2008, it concluded that members of his staff were aware and that he was therefore responsible. The committee said its report was intended to "serve as a public admonishment" of Rangel, and it ordered him to repay costs of the trips.
"They're saying that my staff -- at least two members -- did know [about the financing], and I should have known, and I'm being admonished for that," Rangel said before the report was released.
News of the finding drew quick condemnation from the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Once promised to be the 'most ethical Congress in history,' the Democratic majority now has a serious ethics scandal on its hands," said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the group.
The ethics panel found that five other members under scrutiny for the trips did not knowingly violate House rules.
Beyond the trips, Rangel faces more troublesome allegations regarding his failure to pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic, the use of his congressional office to raise money for the wing of a New York college named in his honor, revised financial disclosure forms that show more than $500,000 in previously unreported wealth, and his use of a rent-controlled apartment for his political committees.
Rangel said Thursday that he met with ethics investigators about a month ago to discuss those issues but he offered no details of those discussions.
Since Rangel asked the ethics panel in the summer of 2008 to scrutinize his activities, which had become a source of controversy, Democrats have defeated a series of GOP resolutions calling for his resignation as Ways and Means chairman.
House rules forbid corporations and most other private groups from funding such travel. Exceptions exist for certain nonprofit groups, and the Caribbean trips that Rangel and the handful of other members of the Congressional Black Caucus took were run by a charity, the Carib News Foundation.
Despite the nonprofit's sponsorship, conservative activists found that many leading corporations, including Citigroup, financed much of the conference's events. Signs and posters were displayed in hotel lobbies showing the corporate financers.
The trips were initially approved by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the ethics panel is formally known. The committee said the approvals were based on "false and misleading information" from three people associated with the foundation. The panel voted to refer that matter to the Justice Department .
Rangel said he had been led to believe the trip conformed with House rules, saying: "Why would I [have regrets] if it was approved by the ethics committee? Why?"