House Democrats face a dilemma with Rangel trial

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; A02

House Democrats continued to struggle with how to handle the pending ethics trial of Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), returning to the Capitol on Monday as unclear on the matter as when they left last week.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Monday that they had not spoken to Rangel about the matter. Neither indicated any knowledge of how the former Ways and Means Committee chairman plans to handle the potentially explosive ethics trial. It is slated to begin Thursday with a hearing, at which the corruption allegations will be detailed.

Rangel is not required to appear for this session, and it is unclear whether he will.

"People will wait and see how that plays out," Pelosi said. "The committee has made its announcement and [outlined] its timetable, and I think that we just have to wait to see how that plays out.Because none of us, not any of us except those on the committee, has any knowledge of" what the charges are.

Hoyer said: "The process is working as it was intended to do, even for a very powerful member of Congress."

The indecision over how to handle the matter comes as some party strategists are privately hoping that Rangel will reach a settlement or announce his resignation before Thursday, to avoid public scrutiny of a messy trial: It would resume in mid-September, just weeks before the November midterm elections. Aides were bracing to see whether more Democrats in vulnerable districts would call for his resignation, as Rep. Betty Sutton (Ohio) did Friday night.

Freshman Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (Pa.) announced Monday that she will donate $14,000 she received from Rangel to charity. Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), who is running for the Senate, had announced Friday that he would do the same.

According to Republican estimates, more than $588,000 in Rangel-related donations has been returned or donated to charity since the ethics committee reprimanded him in February for an unrelated probe regarding his acceptance of corporate-financed travel.

The current investigation involves his personal finances, including his living in rent-controlled apartments in Harlem and his belated disclosure of hundreds of thousands of dollars on financial forms.

It also focuses on how he raised money for the wing of a New York college in his honor. An investigative subcommittee announced Thursday that it had found that Rangel broke unnamed House rules, and another committee was set up to conduct what amounts to a trial on the charges.

The National Republican Congressional Committee issued more than 40 news releases criticizing lawmakers who had not returned their Rangel-linked donations, such as Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.), a former Ways and Means aide who has collected more than $80,000 through Rangel. But Republicans have been careful not to call for Rangel's resignation, hopeful that he will fight out the public trial throughout September and place Democrats in an uncomfortable spot.

As the investigation unfolded, from fall 2008 through last spring, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) offered numerous resolutions calling for Rangel, 80, to surrender his chairmanship. Boehner has now gone mum on the issue.

"The ethics committee has its job to do; I'm sure they'll do it," he told reporters Monday.

Rangel could reach a settlement before Thursday's preliminary hearing, but his legal team's efforts at such a deal broke down last week and led to the committee's scheduling of the trial. His only other option for avoiding a trial is to resign. In public statements since last week's committee announcement, Rangel has given every indication that he is hunkering down for a fight, signaling that he expects the voters in his Harlem district to reelect him to a 21st term.

Rangel and his lawyers still consider settlement a possibility, according to a source who is close to the Rangel team and is familiar with the settlement talks. There have been no active or face-to-face talks in recent days, however.

"I've put in 80 years on these streets, minus four with the Army," Rangel said at a rally in Harlem over the weekend. "They really don't think this thing is the most important thing to them."

For now, Democrats said they hope that the public nature of the Rangel case will at least demonstrate that the much-maligned ethics committee, made up of five Democrats and five Republicans, is capable of policing the House.

"It's better for the institution, whether he reaches a settlement or not, that the public has the confidence that even with a very powerful member of Congress, that the system can and is working," Hoyer said.

Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company