By Paul Kane and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 3, 2010; 12:00 AM
In the final minutes as the votes were tallied on the board above him, Rep. Charles B. Rangel stood alone, his mouth open, watching the count rise. After 21/2 years of pleading his innocence and $2 million in legal fees, the moment the New York Democrat had so feared - a vote of censure by his colleagues - had arrived.
And he knew it. Rangel took a seat in the chair closest to the front of the House chamber, so that when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) began the formal censure ritual - "Will the gentleman from New York, Mr. Rangel, kindly appear in the well?" - his walk of shame was but a pair of steps.
Most of the 22 other men in his position have turned to face the House chamber, but Rangel instead faced Pelosi, his hands clasped in front of him.
The scolding lasted less than 45 seconds: Pelosi read a formal resolution of censure that contained all the flourish of a procedural motion on a tax bill.
When she finished delivering the first congressional censure since 1983, Rangel politely asked to address his colleagues. He apologized for the "awkward" moment and reiterated his contention that he never tried to "enrich myself." Then Rangel returned to the same defiant tone that has epitomized his 40-year tenure in Congress, particularly since the summer of 2008, when allegations of possible wrongdoing first emerged.
"I know in my heart I'm not going to be judged by this Congress," said the 80-year-old former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Despite the censure, he said, he still has not had a bad day since he was nearly killed on the Korean War battlefield 60 years ago.
Rangel then marched into a press room in the Capitol Visitor Center and spent 25 minutes exerting the sort of confidence and relief that usually comes from an acquittal. "I leave here knowing that everybody knows I'm an honest guy," he told reporters.
Despite a concerted effort by supporters to downgrade Rangel's punishment to a reprimand, the House voted 333 to 79 for censure.
With 170 Democrats joining all but two Republicans, the chamber approved the condemnation for 11 rules infractions that included 17 years of unpaid taxes on property in the Dominican Republic, more than $500,000 in undisclosed financial assets and inappropriately raising millions of dollars for a New York City college from corporations with business before the Ways and Means Committee.
Several dozen of Rangel's closest friends fell short in their effort to reduce the sanction to a reprimand, which would not have required the public rebuke by Pelosi. They argued that censure had been reserved for only the most "severe" breaches of public trust. But that amendment fell short, with just 146 votes.
The hour-long debate began shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday, with the House chamber nearly full. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House ethics committee - which voted 9 to 1 two weeks ago to recommend censure - told her colleagues that it was Rangel's "accumulation of actions" that tipped the scale toward giving him the more stringent penalty.
"We need a higher standard," said Lofgren, acting as the lead prosecutor.
Earlier in the debate, as Rangel sat just across the aisle, Lofgren praised his tenure in Congress and his heroism in the Korean War.
But, she said, "that service does not excuse the fact that Representative Rangel violated laws. He violated regulations. He violated the rules of this House."
After ethics committee members outlined the basics of the case, Rangel delivered a five-minute address that was equal parts contrite and personal, noting that Tuesday was the 60th anniversary of the near-fatal injury suffered during the war.
Rangel apologized to the House, saying: "I have made serious mistakes." But he pleaded with lawmakers to reduce the sanction. "I brought it on myself, but I still believe that this body has to be guided by fairness."
After Rangel spoke, he was defended by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who served as the embattled congressman's lead defense attorney. Scott listed other examples of congressmen, including former representatives Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who had violated House rules and received a lesser punishment.
Scott reiterated the main pillar of Rangel's defense: that his offenses did not involve personal enrichment.
"He knows he messed up. He knows he will be punished," Scott said. "We just ask that he be punished like everybody else. . . . There is no precedent for censure in this case."
The lone Republican to speak on Rangel's behalf was a longtime friend from New York, Rep. Peter T. King, who said he disagreed with Rangel on almost every issue. But King, who said he had come to know Rangel through debates on New York television shows, said he saw no evidence that Rangel had committed a crime serious enough for censure.
"If expulsion is the death penalty, then censure is life in prison," he said. "Why, today, are we being asked to reverse 200 years of precedents?" He ended by imploring colleagues not to vote for censure.
At the end of about an hour of debate, Lofgren made a closing argument - that Rangel's punishment should set a new precedent, not follow old ones.
"The process is about protecting the integrity of the House as much as it is about sanctioning a member who has violated the rules," she said.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a Rangel ally, then offered an amendment that would have reduced Rangel's punishment to a reprimand. The amendment failed, and the House went on to the censure vote.
In his news conference after the vote, Rangel said he did not regret asking for the ethics investigation that eventually led to his censure. "I am so pleased that the facts came out," he said. He returned, again, to the argument that none of his violations had enriched him personally. He suggested a newspaper headline: "Rangel found not guilty of corruption and self-dealing."
The congressman was asked whether he would be diminished among his peers in the House.
"Charlie Rangel is Charlie Rangel," he responded.
In other words, no.
How did it feel to stand in the well and be censured, the first House member in almost 30 years, another reporter wanted to know.
"Have you got a license in psychiatry?" Rangel said. And after that laugh line, the gentleman from New York turned and walked away.
Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.