In the coming days, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) has a choice to make. He can listen to his Democratic colleagues and cut a deal, or he can face a full trial before a House panel over several allegations of misconduct.
It’s extremely rare for congressional ethics proceedings to reach this stage. Members more commonly acknowledge some wrongdoing, or resign, well before they’re forced to defend themselves before an official body. But the gravity of the Rangel allegations, combined with his intransigence to this point, leave him poised, potentially, to be the first House member to be tried, and even expelled, by his own colleagues since James Traficant, in 2002.
“We’re kind of astonished it’s gone this far,” says Peter Flaherty, President of the National Legal and Policy Center, whose work led to one investigation of Rangel and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. “We always believed the allegations against Rangel were serious, but we never thought the Ethics Committee would do anything.”
House Ethics officials remain mum about exactly what violations they’ll charge Rangel with, but they’re likely to include, among others: wrongfully accepting four rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem; failure to report, or pay taxes on, income earned from renting a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic; and trading favors with an oil executive who may have sought Rangel’s support for preserving a tax loophole in exchange for a donation to the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York.
The latter allegation — the one about which there’s the least public knowledge — is potentially the most damning.
“That’s the thing that comes closes to bribery, so to my mind that’s the most serious thing,” says Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Observers, including Sloan and Flaherty, expect Rangel to cut a deal, either voluntarily or under pressure from House leadership, which is desperate to avoid a spectacle ahead of a tough election. But if he decides to fight the charges, he’ll face long odds for two reasons: first because, in several instances, he’s already admitted wrongdoing that amounts to violating House ethics rules; and second, because the standard the committee uses to launch the trial is nearly identical to the standard it uses to officially find wrongdoing.
“The other allegations—involving failure to pay taxes on his Dominican villa, the failure to include all of his income on his financial disclosure forms, and the four rent-controlled apartments in New York when you’re only allowed to have one…are violations alone,” Sloan said. “There’s also no question as to whether he filed incorrect financial disclosure forms because he amended his financial disclosure forms.”
“We don’t know if his violations were intentional,” Sloan added. “If he failed to include things intentionally, that’s a far different matter than being sloppy. Failing to include things intentionally is a federal crime.”
But however serious the allegations ultimately prove to be, the fact that things have already come this far bodes poorly for the one-time Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. The Ethics panel (officially, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct) doesn’t hold these proceedings unless there’s “substantial reason to believe” wrongdoing was committed. Their standard for a guilty verdict, though, is to find “clear and convincing evidence” of that wrongdoing. As Sloan says, “there’s not that much room between clear and convincing evidence and substantial reason to believe.”
If he doesn’t cut a deal soon, an adjudicatory subcommittee will hold something along the lines of a pre-trial hearing this Thursday. The charges will be enumerated and he’ll be given the chance to review the evidence against him. Down the line he’ll be allowed to mount a defense and then, if he’s found to have broken the rules, the subcommittee will refer its decision to the full committee, which will determine a punishment. That could be anything from a reprimand or a fine, to a recommendation that the full House vote on whether to expel him from office.
That’s the most dramatic possible outcome, but don’t hold your breath.
“I think there’ll be great pressure on Rangel and the Ethics Committee to make some kind of deal,” Flaherty added.
Sloan feels much the same: “I can’t believe Nancy Pelosi will allow this to happen.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.