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Rep. Charles Rangel broke ethics rules, House panel finds

By Carol D. Leonnig and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 23, 2010; A01

A House ethics subcommittee announced Thursday that it found that Rep. Charles B. Rangel violated congressional ethics rules and that it will prepare for a trial, probably beginning in September. The panel is expected to make the details of his alleged violations public next Thursday.

Rangel (D-N.Y.) has been under the House ethics committee's microscope since early 2008 after it was reported that he may have used his House position to benefit his financial interests. Two of the most serious inquiries have focused on Rangel's failure to declare $239,000 to $831,000 in assets on his disclosure forms, and on his effort to raise money for a private center named after him at City College of New York using his congressional letterhead.

In March, Rangel reluctantly stepped down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee -- a week after the ethics panel ruled in a separate case that he had broken congressional gift rules by accepting trips to conferences in the Caribbean that were financed by corporate interests. The panel said that, at a minimum, Rangel's staff knew about the corporate backing for the 2007 and 2008 trips -- and that the congressman was therefore responsible.

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Rangel, 80, said he welcomed the opportunity to respond to the allegations. "At long last, sunshine has pierced through this cloud that has been over my head for more than two years," he said when asked about the panel's decision.

Sources familiar with the case said that Rangel could have avoided this showdown by accepting the subcommittee's findings. He was briefed on the allegations against him -- as required by House rules -- in recent weeks, and he rejected them.

It has been eight years since the House last opened such proceedings against a member. That happened when Jim Traficant (D-Ohio) rejected the ethics committee's findings that he violated rules. He was later expelled by his peers. Before that, the last member expelled was Michael Myers (D-Pa.), removed by his colleagues in 1980 as a result of the Abscam scandal.

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The committee announcement came shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday as the House finished its votes for the week. About 3 p.m., Rangel and the ethics committee's chairman, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), huddled together in a lengthy conversation on the Republican side of the House floor, far away from their Democratic colleagues, according to a Republican who observed the conversation.

A judge-like panel will meet next Thursday and read the charges. That will happen just as the House is about to leave Washington for a 6 1/2 -week recess. The full trial is not likely to begin until the week of Sept. 13 -- right before Rangel faces what could be a difficult Sept. 14 primary challenge from New York State Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV. Powell is the son of the late congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.), who faced his own ethics problems and was bested in 1970 by Rangel in a Democratic primary.

Rangel has several choices. He can resign, accept the charges and try to stay on, or defend himself. Pressure could build from Democratic members for him to resign rather than endure a public trial that would be humiliating for him and his party so soon before the November midterm elections.

Rangel has spent more than $2 million from his campaign treasury on his legal team, including more than $160,000 this spring, according to federal election reports.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took some heart from the new development involving her longtime colleague, saying it suggested positive things about Congress's ability to police its own.

"The action today would indicate that the independent, bipartisan ethics committee process is moving forward," said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami.

But Republicans used the news to try to make Democratic ethics woes a campaign issue, echoing what Pelosi did to Republicans in 2006, when a pair of GOP lawmakers pleaded guilty to federal felony charges and more than half a dozen others were caught up in their own corruption cases.

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"Today's announcement is a sad reminder of Speaker Pelosi's most glaring broken promise: to 'drain the swamp' in Washington instead of presiding over 'the most honest, most open and most ethical' Congress in history," said Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Fred Wertheimer, president of the congressional ethics group Democracy 21 and a former president of Common Cause, said that Rangel may choose to defend himself but that he "appears to be walking into a very difficult situation."

"He faces the members of the investigative subcommittee who have been looking at this for two years, who have concluded there is substantial reason to believe he has violated the rules," Wertheimer said. "He faces a very tough road ahead."

Some watchdog groups that in the past have called on Rangel to resign made the same plea Thursday. Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it is striking that "the notoriously lax ethics committee" had found cause to believe that Rangel has broken the law, House rules or both.

"Representative Rangel has toughed it out as long as he could; the time clearly has come for him to resign," she said. "He can no longer effectively represent the citizens of New York."

Staff writer Lori Montgomery and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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