Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) wants to clear his name — even if it means muddying it even further. The former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee had to give up the powerful tax-writing post after he was censured by his colleagues for ethics violations. But the long-serving Harlem Democrat is suing the ethics committee to get his harsh penalty overturned. Rangel is well within his right to do this, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
The lawsuit doesn’t take issue with the charges that were leveled against him in 2010. That he was paying below-market rents on four Harlem apartments. That he owed taxes on rental income on a vacation home in the Dominican Republic. That he neglected to fully account on House travel disclosure forms for some privately sponsored trips. And then there was the matter of the amended financial disclosures to account for two checking accounts with up to $500,000 in them.
To be sure, Rangel apologized for his wrongdoing. Even the staff director of the ethics committee at the time said that the 22-term congressman was “sloppy in his personal finances” but he saw “no evidence of corruption.” Still, the committee meted out the harshest penalty short of expulsion against Rangel, which he wants thrown out because he alleges the committee violated his due process rights. Namely, the staff of the bipartisan-by-design committee shared confidential evidence with only the Republicans on the committee. Also, the suit claims the committee prevented Rangel from calling witnesses during his public trial.
“As a result of constitutional violations and violations of procedural and substantive Due Process,” the lawsuit says, “Plaintiff will continue to suffer irreparable harm by reason of the sanction of censure….” It later says that such harm “cannot be compensated by money damages.” An argument can be made that Rangel is adding to his own suffering by bringing this court action.
If anything, I wonder why Rangel isn’t making more of the fact that the ethics committee took no action on his willingness to accept a reprimand. When the full House voted to censure him, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who served as the chair of the ethics committee then, acknowledged this. “[W]e do not discuss the executive session deliberations of the committee,” she said, “but I feel obligated to note, since I think a misimpression could be had, that in fact Mr. Rangel did sign a settlement effort and the committee was unable to reach a settlement agreement with Mr. Rangel….” So, the committee was unable to reach a settlement agreement with him yet he signed a settlement agreement produced by the committee? Something’s not right.
Like other members of Congress who remain in the chamber long after similar troubles, Rangel appeared to be moving beyond the scandal that sullied his formerly stellar career. When he pops up on television or in print, his ethics troubles go unmentioned. That’s because of his long-standing service and his outspokenness on a host of issues from the treatment of the poor to the use of drones. But we’re wading through his ethical transgressions once again.
Why Rangel is doing this is apparent to anyone who knows the man or followed his career. It’s about his legacy. “Congressman Rangel has served in the military (as I recall with distinction) and had a long career in the House of Representatives, leading to Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee,” New York University professor Mitchell Moss told me in an e-mail. “His constituents re-elected him, despite the fact he lost his chairmanship after being censured. It should come as no surprise that Charles Rangel is seeking to remove the stain on an otherwise distinguished and honorable career in congress.”
That stain and the asterisk after his name and record it generated offend his sense of honor — and what motivate his court action today. No matter how misguided that effort might be.
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