Rangel says colleagues who similarly sought donations were not punished

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) acknowledges that he has made mistakes but insists that he is not corrupt. The House voted Thursday to censure the congressman.
By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 31, 2010

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) has chosen a less-than-collegial defense to charges that he violated House ethics rules when he asked corporate donors with legislative interests to give to an academic center bearing his name.

He was not the only lawmaker to solicit donations in this manner, his lawyers argue, saying that peers who did the same thing were not punished.

With a trial of Rangel by the House ethics committee possible by mid-September, his legal team reached across the Capitol to point a finger at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who helped raise money for a center named for him at the University of Louisville. Rangel's team cited similarities with the recently deceased Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and with former Republican senators Trent Lott (Miss.) and Jesse Helms (N.C.).

"These activities have never been regarded as creating an improper benefit to a Member," the lawyers said in their 32-page rebuttal. The logic apparently figured heavily in Rangel's reluctance to negotiate a settlement to 13 charges of ethical misconduct, even when colleagues said Friday they had been ready to impose only a reprimand: Why should he be singled out when others haven't?

The practice of influential lawmakers asking monied donors to give to a charity in which they play a key role, which lies at the heart of 10 of the allegations against Rangel, has long troubled ethics advocates. By taking part in fundraising for such charities, they inevitably arouse suspicion that the donor is getting some legislative favor, even when there is no evidence of a quid pro quo.

"My own view is that people in public office should not anywhere be in these transactions," said Frances R. Hill, a specialist in campaign finance law and professor at the University of Miami who has followed the practice for more than a decade. "Their only relationship with charities should be as contributors out of their own personal funds. When you start being a middleman in these transactions, then inevitably these questions will be raised, and will have to be answered."

But independent campaign finance lawyers say Rangel's case illustrates how slow federal lawmakers have been in understanding the risks of creating what one expert called "Monuments to Me": charities designed at least in part to provide them a post-retirement office where they may contemplate their life amid their collected papers.

Rangel's lawyers have emphasized that the House ethics committee presented no evidence that his connection to the foundation set up by City College of New York brought any personal enrichment or provided any benefits to donors.

But in making the charges, the committee took an unusually bold position: It said that even without proof of such a corrupt transaction, Rangel had brought discredit to the House because "the entities solicited were seeking official action from the House and/or had interests that might be substantially affected" by actions that Rangel took or did not take.

Rangel's effort to point out the practices of other members did not go over well with his targets or with ethics watchdogs. McConnell spokesman Donald Stewart said Friday that "Mr. Rangel's efforts to draw comparisons are absurd and without any similarity whatsoever."

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said pointing fingers at others is "never really a good excuse, [as] we learned back in kindergarten."

Rangel helped create the Rangel Center for Public Service in 2004 to archive his papers and provide what potential donors were told would be a "well-furnished office for Congressman Rangel." He secured federal earmarks totaling $1.6 million for the center. (His attorneys make clear that this, too, is accepted congressional practice.)

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