At the beginning of the first House ethics trial since Jim Traficant was kicked out of Congress, lawmakers yesterday rattled off a list of charges against Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY).
Unless Rangel cuts a deal in which he admits wrongdoing — something his lawyers are reportedly still trying to do, although Rangel has been adamant about professing his innocence — he will face a very public trial on the 13 alleged violations, just weeks before the midterm elections. The trial could end with a recommendation to expel Rangel from the House.
So how did we get here?
Much of it began in 2004, when Rangel, inspired by the dedication of Clinton’s presidential center, decided he wanted such a legacy. So, according to the ethics panel’s statement of charges, he spoke to the president of the City College of New York. In 2005, CCNY began fundraising for the Rangel Center, creating a glossy brochure which noted the center would include a library and archives of Rangel’s papers.
CCNY and Rangel wanted to secure commitments of $30 million, or $6 million a year for five years. It was an aggressive goal, and through 2008, Rangel kept soliciting donations and lobbying for earmarks. And, according to the ethics panel, he did so improperly.
He wrote fundraising letters on official Congressional letterhead. He had his staff work with CCNY officials to create a list of potential donors, and drafted a form letter requesting donations from the donors. In the form letter, he assured donors that he expected money from Congress as well. He sent the letters to 100 foundations, including the charitable arms of corporations such as Verizon.
According to the ethics panel, the people who made donations were the same people lobbying on issues before the Ways and Means Committe (on which Rangel was Ranking Member through 2006, after which he assumed the chair). For example, after securing $1,000,000 from the CEO of Nabors Industries, Rangel held two meetings over the next year with the CEO and his lobbyist to discuss tax policy.
Lobbyists from Verizon, AIG and New York Life Insurance — all solicited by Rangel for donations to CCNY— all lobbied the committee during the same period.
It was July 2007 when the New York Post first noted that Rangel was soliciting donations for the center from companies with interest before the committee.
Rangel argues, in his lawyers’ lengthy response to the committee’s charges, that he did nothing wrong in fundraising for the Rangel Center.
“Without pausing to consider, Congressman Rangel treated this effort as constituent service, in pursuit of not one, but two, important national priorities — providing educational opportunities for disadvantaged and minority students and promoting diversity in our nation’s public service,” he says. Rangel also argues that his use of Congressional letterhead was a mistake made “in good faith,” and says he solicited donors who tended to donate to educational centers without regard to their business before the committee.
A year after the Post story first ran, the New York Times reported that Rangel had four rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem, using three adjacent apartments as his home and a fourth, illegally, as a campaign office. He was paying less than half the market rate for the apartments.
His landlord, the Olnick Organization, was aggressive in evicting other tenants from rent-controlled apartments. Those tenants were also Rangel’s constituents and, according to the panel, his staff helped mediate disputes between the tenants and the same landlord who was cutting Rangel a deal. He also discussed future construction projects with Olnick.
The ethics charges here focus on his illegal use of the fourth apartment. The panel also says that Rangel reflected “discreditability” on the House for his conduct.
Rangel’s defense here is that the landlord always knew what he’d use the fourth apartment for. The ethics panel claims Rangel lied and said it would be for his son to live in; Rangel said he never claimed that. He didn’t address the apparent illicitness of using the apartment for non-residential purposes, but he did say he never received special treatment from the landlord and always paid the highest rent allowed by law.
After that 2008 Times story, more cracks began showing. The Washington Post wrote about Rangel’s solicitations, noting he used official letterhead. In August, the New York Post reported that Rangel was only sporadically reporting the rent he earned from a villa in the Dominican Republic. The taxes he paid on it were equally sporadic.
Amid (ignored) calls to resign his chairmanship, Rangel admitted to not reporting some $75,000 in income from the villa. He filed new tax returns and paid the back taxes.
In September, he asked the ethics committee to look into the fundraising, the apartments and the villa.
The panel’s scope expanded. According to the committee, he had failed to disclose a slew of assets: a credit union account, stocks, mutual funds, vacant lots in New Jersey. The panel began looking into the $1 million Rangel received from Nabor for the Rangel Center.
It was a year later, in August 2009, that Rangel filed amended financial disclosure forms for years 1998 through 2007. He now argues that, since he’s made good on his taxes and disclosures, charging him with such violations is moot.
“The extraordinary measures voluntarily undertaken by the Congressman attest to his sincere regret, good faith and acceptance of responsibility for the mistakes that were made in his financial disclosures,” he said in his response.
Six months after Rangel paid his back taxes, in February 2010, the ethics committee admonished Rangel on a different charge — that he went on corporate-funded junkets to the Caribbean. A few days later, he resigned the chairmanship of Ways and Means, calling the move temporary.
Last week, the ethics committee announced they were moving forward with charges. We heard the 13 charges for the first time yesterday, setting up a mid-September trial if Rangel doesn’t strike a deal first.
That brings us up to date. Rangel, as recently as yesterday, maintains that he “did not dispense any political favors, that he did not intentionally violate any law, rule, or regulation, and that he did not misuse his public office for private gain.”
Throughout the process, he has maintained his innocence, accusing the media of ginning up the charges against him.