Charlie Rangel censure recommended by House ethics committee

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 12:47 AM

Despite an impassioned, tearful apology and a plea for leniency, Rep. Charles B. Rangel on Thursday became the first House member in nearly three decades to be recommended for censure.

The House ethics committee voted 9 to 1 in favor of censuring Rangel (D-N.Y.), who was found guilty this week of 11 violations of House rules, including improperly using his office to raise money and failing to pay taxes.

Censure, which is just below expulsion, is the second most serious punishment the House can impose on a member. The recommendation will next go to the full chamber, which will probably vote the week after Thanksgiving and is expected to endorse the committee's decision.

Three months ago, Rangel dared the committee to "fire your best shot" and said he was confident that he would be cleared of the charges.

He took a much different approach Thursday as he implored the panel to preserve his dignity and to declare that he is not "a crook."

"I just hope no matter what you decide in the sanctions, that you put in that report Charles Rangel never sought any personal gain," said the former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Rangel made one final request - that the ethics report to the full House take note that he was not found guilty of corruption.

"That would be of great help," he said.

The conviction covers four areas of unethical behavior, the committee ruled. Rangel, 80, was found to have improperly used his congressional staff and official letterhead to solicit donations from corporate charities and chief executives for a college wing named in his honor, contributions that soared into six- and seven-figure range once he became chairman of the tax-writing committee. The committee also found that he violated New York City rules by housing his political committees in rent-controlled apartments in Harlem, did not pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic, and did not properly disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal financial assets.

After spending about $2 million on two teams of lawyers, Rangel had paid five years of back taxes on the villa. The committee ordered him to do more and make restitution on more than a decade's worth of taxes and interest.

If the full House supports the ethics panel's recommendation, it will be the first censure since two congressmen were found to have had sexual relationships with congressional pages in 1983.

Rangel would still be sworn in for his 21st term Jan. 5. But many of his colleagues said Thursday that this once formidable, even revered, lawmaker, who has served nearly four decades in the House and who was one of the co-founders of the Congressional Black Caucus, will never regain his stature.

"Anyone who doesn't think Charlie Rangel has not sufficiently been damaged doesn't understand the human spirit," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) said Thursday.

Stripped of his chairmanship and heading into the minority next year, Rangel has lost almost all the power he once wielded. "That's a bigger punishment than any letter" of censure, said one New York Democrat, who, like other lawmakers, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a colleague.

Some saw Rangel's last-minute plea as the moment that he finally understood there were no cards left to play and that mercy was his last option. But they were unmoved and believed that a tougher penalty was needed.

"I just think consequences should have consequences," said Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), who has been one of Rangel's leading critics over the past two years.

Other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle remain conflicted about whether Rangel deserves to be punished so severely. Some grew emotional when talking about Rangel's decades on Capitol Hill, his years as a prosecutor, his heroism in the Korean War. But they also wonder whether Rangel understands the severity of his violations.

A Democratic colleague said that during his days as a prosecutor he found some defendants were so beaten down by a guilty verdict that there was no need for further punishment, but others needed a prison sentence to fully understand their wrongdoing.

On which side was Rangel? The Democrat shook his head and said he didn't know.

A Republican who served on Ways and Means with Rangel said he admired him but felt terrible in the past two years watching the chairman's power slip as he became consumed by the mounting ethics scandal.

"He's been wounded," the Republican said.

Some Democrats, including Rep. G.K. Butterfield (N.C.), a member of the ethics committee, opposed the censure vote. Butterfield called it "extreme" and said such punishment should be reserved for cases involving "corruption." They argued for a lesser penalty, such as a reprimand, which then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was given in 1997 to conclude a case involving his improper use of nonprofit groups for political gain.

R. Blake Chisam, the chief counsel for the committee and lead prosecutor, told the panel that a proper punishment might be "something more than a reprimand but less than a censure." What tipped the scales to censure, he said, was Rangel's stature as the top Democrat on Ways and Means, which proved central to his fundraising efforts for the college wing and his failure to pay taxes.

"So many elements of his conduct intersected so overtly with his stature and his position," Chisam said.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who will become speaker in January, signaled that he was satisfied with the recommendation of censure, calling the ethics panel "the only bipartisan committee."

In the end, Rangel could not hold back his exhaustion and emotion. Nearing 3 p.m. Thursday, his last chance to plead for mercy before the committee was to begin deliberating in private, Rangel rose to say how sorry he was. "I thank you for this awkward opportunity to express myself. And I apologize for any embarrassment I've caused you individually or collectively as a member of the greatest institution in the country and the world," he said, his voice quivering.

He sat down and wiped tears from his eyes. His right knee bounced nervously as committee members filed past him. Rangel remained in his chair, quiet and nearly still, until two aides coaxed him to stand and head to the door.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company