Rangel's Pet Cause Bears His Own Name
Firms With Business Before Panel Solicited
Tuesday, July 15, 2008; Page A01
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel is soliciting donations from corporations with business interests before his panel, hoping to raise $30 million for a new academic center that will house his papers when he retires.
The New York Democrat has penned letters on congressional stationery and has sought meetings to ask for corporate and foundation contributions for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York, a project that caused controversy last year when he won a $1.9 million congressional earmark to help start it. Republican critics dubbed the project Rangel's "Monument to Me."
The congressman has corralled more federal money as well, securing two Department of Housing and Urban Development grants totaling $690,500 to help renovate the college-owned Harlem brownstone that will house the center, according to HUD and school officials.
"It is a personal dream of mine to see this Center at City College, which resides in my congressional district and where so many talented young men and women from the community have gotten an excellent education," Rangel wrote in a March 7, 2007, letter to real estate mogul Donald Trump, one of the business leaders the congressman has solicited.
Ethics experts and government watchdogs say it is troubling that one of the nation's most powerful lawmakers would seek money from businesses that have interests before the committee he leads. Rangel's panel has broad jurisdiction over tax policy, trade, Social Security and Medicare.
More generally, many say it is a bad idea to name a facility after an incumbent politician who might be tempted to channel public money to it rather than to more worthy causes.
"I think that he has crossed the line," said F. Christopher Arterton, dean of George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "Charlie Rangel is a prominent public servant and may deserve a center at City College. . . . But I think one has to be careful about how one raises the money for that. The danger is that it begins to blur the lines between whether a quid pro quo is implied by this or not."
Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense, said: "People in positions of power have to be very conscious of the coercive effect of their requests."
Rangel said in a telephone interview that he would seek money for the project even if it did not bear his name, because he believes in its mission of promoting racial diversity in public administration leadership. He said congressional business never comes up with potential donors.
"In the 38 years that I've been down here, I don't think there has ever been any challenge, real or unreal, to my integrity as it relates to fundraising," he said. He added: "If it was an ethical problem, I wouldn't do it."
Rangel's efforts have helped raise about $12 million of the $30 million goal, college officials said.
On the same day that the congressman wrote to Trump, he sent a nearly identical letter to Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg, a former longtime head of AIG, an insurance and financial services giant. Greenberg is now chief executive of C.V. Starr & Co., a global investment and insurance firm that has close ties to AIG.