By Paul Kane, Perry Bacon Jr. and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 26, 2010; 4:30 PM
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Friday gave a strong defense of Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), lending her continued support for the embattled lawmaker a day after the ethics committee admonished him for accepting privately paid travel against House rules.
Turning aside calls for him to give up one of the most powerful gavels in Congress, Pelosi noted that, as Rangel has said, he is being punished based on what his staff knew about his trips to 2007 and 2008 conferences at Caribbean resorts.
"They have said he did not knowingly violate the rules," Pelosi said at her weekly news conference. "I think it's quite a statement to hold members accountable for what their staff knew."
Pelosi's comments gave a boost inside a Democratic caucus that has grown increasingly uneasy defending Rangel, who has faced a series of resolutions from Republicans calling for his resignation as chairman. Those have all been beaten back, but another is expected in the coming days.
Republicans continued to accuse Pelosi of retreating from her 2006 pledge, when Democrats were in the minority, to run an ethically pure Congress once they took over the House.
"Not only do we have a Democrat-led congress that refuses to listen to the American people, but Nancy Pelosi and her allies refuse to listen to themselves," Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement. "The Speaker promised the run the 'most ethical congress in history' and instead the voters got an out-of-touch, tone-deaf majority that appears to be belly flopping into the very swamp they promised to drain."
While the panel did not find that the New York Democrat 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.
Rangel said he intends to remain chairman, telling reporters the admonishment had as much to do with his committee work as did Friday's snowstorm in New York.
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.
Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.), who is running in a competitive Senate race, called Friday for Rangel to step aside.
While some conservative Democrats have called for his ouster, the ethics admonishment brought complaints from other corners of the caucus. "There's a personal inventory he has to do," Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) said. "There's also one the caucus has to do. It's a no-won situation from a public relations perspective."
Kennedy, who is retiring at the end of the year, said he believes Rangel comes from a different generation that is not ready to handle the intense ethical spotlight.
"I think he comes from a different day at school, where there weren't these ethics laws . . . where there wasn't the glare of public scrutiny," Kennedy said.
But, few Democrats expect Rangel to step aside.
"If there's anything I've learned about Mr. Rangel, he's not a quitter," Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said. "He is a very principled man and he will fight until the end, until there is a resolution."
"He's doing a fine job as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and he's going to continue to do a fine job," added Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus."They did not take action against him."
House rules forbid corporations and most other private groups from funding such travel. Exceptions exist for certain nonprofit groups, and the Caribbean trips Rangel and the handful of other members of the Congressional Black Caucus took were run by a charity, the Carib News Foundation.
The ethics panel found that five other members under scrutiny for the trips did not knowingly violate House rules.
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. 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 that he is being blamed for what aides knew.
"Common sense dictates that members of Congress should not be held responsible for what could be the wrongdoing or mistakes or errors of staff unless there is reason to believe the members knew or should have known," he said at a Thursday night news conference.