Rangel proceeding worries Dems and puzzles ethics experts

The timing of Rep. Charles Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) public House ethics trial has House Democrats panicked and ethics watchdogs puzzled.

Democrats are worried the unusual and high-profile trial will cost the party seats in the fall by undermining Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) argument that she is running the most ethical House in history.

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Ethics experts are stumped as to why the ethics committee would allow the trial to happen so close to an election, which makes the panel vulnerable to criticism that the process could be politicized.  

It appears the veteran New York lawmaker will have a public trial in September, not long before a midterm election where his party is worried it will lose control of the House.

Politically savvy analysts initially thought Rangel was dragging his feet with the ethics committee and refusing to settle the case to smooth his reelection chances. Rangel faces a Sept. 14 primary.

But a defiant Rangel on Friday said he was happy the violation would be aired before his primary so voters could see him explain himself directly. The ethics committee has not specified the exact allegations but is expected to do so at an organizational meeting for the trial on July 29. Rangel has said he plans to attend it.

“I am so pleased that they have reported to this to the ethics committee,” Rangel said at a Friday press conference, referring to the investigative subcommittee that found he had violated multiple House rules. “This is going to be done before my primary election, before my general election.”

“I want to make sure that before this election people know who Charlie Rangel is, was and is proud to be.”

Despite Rangel’s remarks, the trial is unlikely to begin before the primary. Rangel and his attorneys have 15 days, according to ethics committee rules, to review the exact ethics violations and could request more time to prepare for such a crucial public examination.

But it does appear Rangel will go on trial before November’s elections.

The former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee faces multiple ethics violations for an array of allegations related to his personal financial dealings and unpaid taxes for rent on a Dominican villa. Party strategists were wringing their hands late this week over the news about the spectacle of a public trial of Rangel’s ethics charges and the disastrous effect it could have on voters’ perceptions of Democrats before an election that could hand control of the House to Republicans.

Watchdogs also question why Rangel or the ethics committee itself would allow the standoff to continue until one month before his primary and two months before the election.


“All of us have been very concerned and critical,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. “It’s not good for him and it’s not good for the ethics process to be doing this so close to an election. Doing this in September is in some ways an indictment on the ethics process itself. It’s not fair to him and it’s not fair to the public.”

House ethics rules prohibit the committee from taking any new complaints and launching investigative subcommittees (a sign that the panel is taking allegations seriously) 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election. But they do not bar the panel from settling a case against a member or holding a public adjudicatory trial.

Though the rules don’t specifically bar such a trial, lawmakers and ethics committee members frequently stress the need to avoid taking action against a member close to an election or risk criticism that the ethics committee process is flawed and subject to political witchhunts.

Rangel and his team of attorneys, however, must have known that a public trial was possible even though the veteran lawmaker has said the ethics committee announcement Thursday surprised him.

“My guess is that he sincerely believes that if he gets the chance to make his case to his constituents, he can defend himself, that he doesn’t really care about the world at large, he’s just focused on his constituents and he believes he could sell this to them,” McGehee
said.

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