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Democrats worry Rangel's ethics trial will hurt party in midterm elections

By Paul Kane and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2010; A03

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) hunkered down Friday as he prepared to stage a public battle over allegations that his financial dealings broke House ethics rules. His determination to fight the charges has left Democrats fearful that an ethics trial, planned for mid-September, could wind up tarnishing the whole party just weeks before the midterm elections.

Rangel, 80, dismissed talk of resignation, and Democratic leaders left Capitol Hill for the weekend without a clear path for resolving the case. As of late Friday, Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), an endangered second-term incumbent, was the only Democrat to call for the 40-year veteran to resign, telling the Hill newspaper, "This is about preserving the public trust." No Democrats had come out in his defense.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) had not spoken to Rangel about the issue, aides said. They made only tepid statements, noting the "process is moving forward."

In private, Democratic aides and political strategists shook their heads at the prospect of a public reading of Rangel's alleged misdeeds -- first at a televised preliminary hearing set to begin Thursday and continuing with the ethics trial in September after Congress returns from a nearly seven-week recess.

"The time has come for Charlie Rangel to think more about his party than about himself. Each and every day that a trial goes on would cost Democrats more seats," said a Democratic chief of staff to one of the dozens of incumbents who are facing difficult reelection campaigns. Like most Democratic staff and strategists, the aide requested anonymity because of the political sensitivity of criticizing Rangel, who until his ethics woes had been a beloved figure in the Democratic caucus.

Rangel displayed his usual confidence at a news conference Friday in Harlem. "My lawyers are gonna kill me," he joked, hinting that they would prefer he remain silent. He avoided the specifics of his case and vowed to fight on, saying the public airing of the charges next week would benefit him.

"I'm in the kitchen and I'm not walking out," said the former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

The ethics committee announced Thursday that an investigative subcommittee had found that Rangel broke unspecified congressional rules, and it established a separate subcommittee to consider the case. It did not spell out what sanction he might face, although the options could range from an admonishment to a more severe censure or even expulsion.

Since 2008 the investigative panel had probed whether he improperly used his congressional office to raise money for a New York college wing named in his honor; violated city rules through his rent-controlled apartments in Harlem; failed to pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic; and failed to properly disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal financial assets. A separate investigative panel reprimanded Rangel in February for accepting corporate-financed travel, a minor infraction that was still serious enough to force him to surrender his chairmanship while the more serious investigation continued.

Some Democrats privately expressed irritation because a spectacle might have been avoided had Rangel reached a settlement with the leaders of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. An accidentally leaked copy of the committee's internal work from 2009 showed that, as far back as last July, Rangel's attorneys were discussing the possibility of a "proffer," a legal term for a defendant's stipulating to certain facts.

But the chances of a settlement had grown bleak by June as Rangel -- not his lawyers -- repeatedly refused to acknowledge some violations, according to sources familiar with the case. His lawyers filed procedural motions, which members considered an effort to drag out the process.

One source familiar with the negotiations in the ethics case said Rangel was willing to make a public apology. But the investigative subcommittee's members grew angry when Rangel told New York media that the committee had found nothing wrong, sources said.

Republicans, meanwhile, are seeking to make the most of connections between Rangel and Democratic candidates. The National Republican Senatorial Committee targeted a handful of House Democrats running for Senate seats, including Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.), who has accepted $17,000 in donations from Rangel's political committees. "Hodes is vying for a promotion to the U.S. Senate, and he has a responsibility to stand up for ethical standards and accountability in Congress on behalf of the people of New Hampshire," NRSC press secretary Amber Marchand said Friday.

Hodes's campaign did not respond to inquiries about Rangel.

Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), also running for the Senate, announced he would donate the $12,000 he received from Rangel to charity. But he stopped short of calling for Rangel's resignation.

"In light of these serious charges, there must be a thorough and expeditious trial," Ellsworth said.

Rangel will face two juries in September: one, his colleagues on an evenly divided bipartisan ethics subcommittee; the other, voters in his Harlem-based district, where he faces several younger self-proclaimed reformers in a Sept. 14 primary.

One of those is New York State Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, the son of the late congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.). Rangel entered Congress after ousting Powell in a 1970 primary in which Rangel played the role of young reformer running against an entrenched incumbent who faced his own ethics problems.

Rangel said he was not relishing the spotlight: "No, hell no, nobody in his right mind would be looking forward to something like this."

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