Rep. Charles Rangel reflects on his censure and his legacy
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 10:49 PM
After it was all over - the bear hugs, the whispers, the somber theatricality - one question lingered about Charlie Rangel's censure, and it was wider than Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem. How did the savvy old pol let this happen?
How did one of the shrewdest operatives in the House of Representatives, a man who rose to become chairman of the most powerful committee, Ways and Means, an expert in tax law and spending procedures, a hero to black America, get caught chiseling on his taxes? How did he let himself become the latest example of ethical lapses in Congress?
Weeks after he was censured by the House - a rebuke suffered by only 22 others in congressional history - Rangel, 80, sat for two interviews in his Capitol Hill office. Reviewing the events of the past two years, his answers were full of contradictions that seem to defy easy explanation.
He doesn't bother to conceal his rage and lashes out, in that deep Orson Welles voice, in many directions: He admits he made mistakes, but also lays blame upon a conservative ethics group and their efforts to expose him. He fingers a former chief of staff who he says didn't pay attention to details.
And he laments a political climate in which veteran members of Congress are treated like the amateur performers at Harlem's Apollo Theater (which Rangel helped save from extinction), their fate dependent on the whim of the audience.
"Nothing I did was inconsistent with what I thought was legal. It wasn't done in the dark of night!" The voice is roaring away, yelling indiscriminately at everyone in the room. He begins riffling through papers on his desk as if a document or folder might include the magic of belated redemption.
"If there's no corruption, then the corruption shouldn't have been an issue," said Rangel, who served on the Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings against President Richard Nixon. "Nobody's been censured when there hasn't involved the breaking of any laws."
The ethics committee, chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), concluded that Rangel had not paid taxes for 17 years on property he owns in the Dominican Republic, where he sometimes vacations. It said he raised "millions" of dollars for the Rangel Center at City College of New York from corporations that did business before his Ways and Means Committee. And it concluded that he had accumulated more than $500,000 in undisclosed financial assets.
While taking blame for what he termed "overzealousness" in fundraising, Rangel chided members of Congress who voted for censure instead of a less serious reprimand, howled about a double standard, vowed that this episode "is not over yet" and complained bitterly about the National Legal and Policy Center, a Falls Church-based organization that chases after public officials who may have ethics issues.
"For a chairman to violate House rules, well, I don't feel good about that," he said. "If it was done because I relied on my chief of staff, George Dalley, a Columbia Law School graduate, smart man, well, again, I do feel bad. But I didn't get a nickel!"
Rangel repeatedly mentioned people who have expressed support for him or minimized the import of the ethics violations. He recounted a train ride from Manhattan to Washington earlier that day, replete with the familiar pats on the back and warm handshakes. "Henry Kissinger grabbed me on the train . . . and said, 'You got a bum deal. You're still my congressman.' He asked me: 'Why did they vote against you?' And all I could say was: 'Congress is held in such low esteem!' "
He likes this theme of Congress and public perception. "Representatives didn't want to look soft on corruption - even if it wasn't corruption!" he said. He's started combing his hair. He's at the refrigerator grabbing a 32-ounce bottle of soda and taking a swallow. "I think the reputation of Congress is so low that to vote for me would have been seen as being soft on crime. Soft on misconduct."