Charlie Rangel finally found an ethics cause he can get behind this week.
As the House ethics panel was about to begin its long-awaited trial of the scandal-plagued New York Congressman, Rangel made one final, desperate attempt to save face. He asked that the trial, which he had earlier supported to clear his name, be postponed because he does not have a paid lawyer and it would be contrary to House rules about accepting gifts to use the services of pro bono legal counsel. Any free legal advice that he received would be “considered a violation of the gift ban,” Rangel informed reporters. Thus “deprived counsel,” Rangel insisted that the trial would have to be delayed until he could assemble a fund for his defense. When the bipartisan subcommittee denied Rangel’s request for a delay and went ahead with the proceedings, Rangel theatrically walked out.
There was more than an element of expediency in Rangel’s last-ditch appeal to House ethics rules. For one thing, the Congressman was advised as early as September 2008 that he could set up a defense fund and raise money for his legal expenses – not two weeks ago, as Rangel has claimed – which he failed to do. Further, Rangel has badly mismanaged his legal defense. The reason that Rangel does not have a paid defense lawyer is that he diverted some $2 million of his campaign funds to lawyer’s fees. As ethics questions continued to dog the congressman and as his influence diminished, these funds disappeared, ultimately forcing him to part ways with his high-profile, high-priced legal team last month. These include questions about the nearly $400,000 that Rangel skimmed from his political action committee to pay for his legal team – itself a violation of the congressional ethics to which Rangel now made a show of deferring.
Rangel’s self-inflicted legal woes are part of much broader ethical quagmire of his own making. It’s a corruption-drenched résumé that has made Rangel into a symbol of congressional venality and, increasingly, a political liability for his party. Among the 13 charges whose public hearing Rangel has been so keen to postpone is that he abused his position as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee to raise funds for an honorary Rangel Center for Public Service at New York’s City College; that he lied about his finances in his personal disclosure filings to avoid paying taxes on a vacation villa in the Dominican Republic; that he improperly accepted rent-controlled apartments in his Harlem district and that he used one of them as a campaign office. It is a measure of the depth of Rangel’s corruption that his trial has taken on a historic significance. It marks the first time since 1987 that the House ethics has independently launched hearings on a member’s misconduct.
Although Rangel has never directly acknowledged wrongdoing, he has admitted to some of the charges and there is little doubt that he violated House ethics rules. It would not be the first time. In March, he was forced to resign his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee after a House ethics panel censured him for accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean. Still, Rangel had managed to avoid a reckoning on the 13 ethics charges against him, as Democrats pushed to delay a trial that might further darken Democrats’ hopes in an election year.
Rangel’s reprieve expired this week. Following his protest exit from the trial, the House ethics panel accepted that the allegations against him were factually accurate. That means that even if he escapes responsibility for some of the 13 charges, Rangel will almost certainly be found to have violated House rules.
It still remains for the House ethics panel to render a verdict on Rangel’s fate. But whatever the outcome of the trial, one account of Rangel’s ethical troubles should not be allowed to stand. According to Rangel and his supporters, an estimable 50-year career of public service has been tarnished by political opponents and an unfair process. In truth, the responsibility for sullying his record belongs to Rangel alone. By way of explaining his chronic ethical lapses, the Congressman has said, “It may be stupid. It may be negligent. But it’s not corrupt.” Actually, it’s all three, and were Rangel a more ethical public servant, he might also admit the obvious: It’s all his fault.