Democrat Rangel charged with 13 ethics violations

By Paul Kane and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010; A01

The House ethics committee charged Rep. Charles B. Rangel with 13 separate violations of House rules Thursday, saying his various financial dealings broke the "public trust." The long-awaited release of the charges against Rangel at an afternoon hearing was the first formal step toward a possible ethics trial in mid-September.

After eleventh-hour settlement talks broke down, the committee announced that it had found "substantial reason to believe" that the New York Democrat had violated House rules or federal laws by soliciting donations from people with business before his committee to fund a center named in his honor at City College of New York, not paying taxes on a Caribbean home, improperly using a rent-stabilized apartment in New York as a campaign office, and not properly disclosing more than $600,000 in income and assets.

"These actions, if proven, would demonstrate that Mr. Rangel violated multiple provisions of the House rules and federal statutes. . . . We can never forget that public office is a public trust," said Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), a former federal corruption prosecutor and the top Republican on the ethics subcommittee hearing Rangel's case.

Rangel did not appear at the hearing, but his attorneys issued a 32-page rebuttal. Rangel denied that donors for the college wing were targeted based on their business before his committee and said he had received no personal benefit from the college.

He also said he "acted promptly to correct unintentional mistakes" in filing financial disclosure forms. He said he paid the "maximum rent" for the Harlem apartment and "received no special benefits" for the unit.

Rangel's attorneys, led by Leslie B. Kiernan, wrote to the committee: "The undisputed evidence in the record -- assembled by the investigative subcommittee over its nearly two-year investigation -- is that Congressman Rangel did not dispense any political favors, that he did not intentionally violate any law, rule or regulation, and that he did not misuse his public office for private gain."

Rangel must decide how aggressively to continue with settlement talks or defend himself in a full trial, which Democratic leaders have been hoping to avoid so close to the November midterm elections.

So far, only a few fellow Democrats have called on Rangel to resign, but party strategists fear more could come now that the allegations have been detailed.

Rangel was compelled to give up the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in March after being reprimanded by the ethics committee in a separate probe over accepting corporate-financed travel to the Caribbean.

The unveiling of the latest allegations capped a frantic final 48 hours of negotiations between Rangel's attorneys and the ethics committee's nonpartisan lawyers, who continued talking into Thursday morning. His team appeared to be on the brink of a deal, in which Rangel would admit to at least some wrongdoing and the two sides would negotiate a punishment, avoiding the possible spectacle and humiliation of a public trial.

But committee Republicans blamed Rangel's team when no such deal was reached, saying he and his attorneys had declined previous settlement entreaties and used delay tactics designed to stretch out the process.

After Thursday's hearing, members of the full ethics committee convened another huddle in its meeting room in the Capitol basement, sparking talk of renewed plea negotiations. Rangel's team hoped to reach a settlement, but the committee announced there would be no further comment and departed shortly before 9 p.m.

"Mr. Rangel was given multiple opportunities to settle this matter. Instead, he chose to move forward into this public trial phase," Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.), the co-chairman of the investigative panel, said at the hearing.

Democrats on the subcommittee also expressed dismay with Rangel's tactics. Rep. Gene Green (Tex.), the Democrat who led the investigation with Bonner, released a four-page statement listing various ways Rangel caused "significant delay," including filing multiple motions that were not signed under oath. Bonner and Green will act as the prosecution if the trial phase goes forward in September.

The hearing, which took place inside the cavernous $621 million Capitol Visitors Center, set the stage for what could be the first ethics trial since then-Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) was expelled after being found guilty of corruption in 2002.

Rangel's first alleged transgressions began more than 10 years ago, when he filed financial disclosure forms that did not include more than $80,000 in rental income from a New York brownstone he owned. He also did not report rental income from a Caribbean villa that he used as a rental property. During the two-year investigation, Rangel filed amended reports outlining more than $600,000 in previously undisclosed income and assets,

the investigation found.

The most serious allegation involved his efforts to create the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. The probe alleged that Rangel frequently solicited donations from lobbyists and companies with interests before the Ways and Means Committee.

The subcommittee said Rangel asked his congressional staff to produce "a list of potential donors to the Rangel Center." It continued: "The work was done on property of the House of Representatives, on official House time and with the use of official House resources." The report said Rangel also sent letters on congressional letterhead to potential donors, along with a brochure requesting a gift of $30 million or $6 million per year for five years.

In 1996, Rangel signed a lease for a rent-stabilized apartment when he already had three apartments in the same Harlem building, a violation of local zoning laws. Rangel said his son, Steven, would live there, but Steven Rangel never moved in. The elder Rangel used the fourth apartment as an office for his reelection campaign and political action committee, violating the lease.

"We live in a time where public skepticism about the institutions in our country is very high," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee "jury" conducting the trial. "It has been the goal of our Ethics Committee throughout this Congress to by our actions rebuild and earn trust by the public and our colleagues."

Republicans made no secret of their desire to use Rangel's troubles against Democrats, criticizing them for not living up to their pledge to "drain the swamp" of corruption in Washington. "This is a sad day when the U.S. House of Representatives has to sit in trial of one of its own members, and it is one of the biggest broken promises of Speaker Pelosi," said Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Democratic leaders said the proceedings against Rangel prove the system is working. "Drain the swamp we did, because this was a terrible place," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "Are there going to be individual issues to be dealt with? Yes. I never said that there wouldn't be."

Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company