House ethics panel convicts Rep. Rangel on 11 of 13 counts of rule violations

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), once one of the most powerful members of the House, was convicted Tuesday on 11 counts of violating ethics rules and now faces punishment.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the adjudicatory subcommittee and the full House ethics committee, announced the decision late Tuesday morning following an abbreviated public trial and nearly six hours of deliberations.

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"We have tried to act with fairness, led only by the facts and the law," Lofgren said. "We believe we have accomplished that mission."

The full ethics panel will now convene a sanctions hearing to recommend a punishment, which ethics experts say will most likely be a reprimand or formal censure. The ethics committee had yet to announce by Tuesday afternoon when the hearing would occur.

Serious sanctions — including formal reprimand, censure or expulsion — require a vote on the House floor. Expulsion requires a two-thirds vote, while a reprimand, to which Rangel refused to agree in July, or a censure would need only a simple majority. The ethics panel could also impose a fine and deny some of Rangel’s House privileges.

But Rangel, 80, is certainly not expected to lose his job. The silver-haired 20-term veteran, known for his gravelly voice, sense of humor and sartorial splendor, is still beloved by many of his House colleagues. And in the lame-duck session, Democrats still hold the majority.

Either reprimand or formal censure carries no immediate, tangible consequence for Rangel, who easily won reelection this month, but the sweeping guilty verdict delivers a damaging blow to his reputation and 40-year political legacy.

Years of negative publicity and his drawn-out defense pushed the specter of the trial into the 2010 campaign season, angering House Democratic leaders and forcing some of Rangel's colleagues to return campaign contributions from him. Earlier this year, he was stripped of his powerful Ways and Means gavel after an initial investigation into a corporate-funded trip to the Caribbean concluded he should have known that his aides were trying to evade ethics rules.

Asked if he had any reaction to the panel's decision, Rangel initially told reporters, "Nope, none,” adding that he first saw the ruling on television.

Later, in an official statement, Rangel slammed the ethics subcommittee's "unprecedented" decision, saying his due-process rights were violated because the panel ruled without him having legal representation.

"How can anyone have confidence in the decision of the ethics subcommittee when I was deprived of due-process rights, right to counsel and was not even in the room?" Rangel said. "I can only hope that the full committee will treat me more fairly, and take into account my entire 40 years of service to the Congress before making any decisions on sanction."

Rangel also lamented the lack of a system to appeal the House ethics panel’s decision.

“While I am required to accept the findings of the ethics committee, I am compelled to state again the unfairness of its continuation without affording me the opportunity to obtain legal counsel as guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution," he said.

The decision comes one day after the panel rejected an emotional plea by Rangel to delay the trial because he lacked counsel. Rangel’s team of attorneys told him in mid-October that they could no longer represent him, and Rangel said he could not afford to hire a replacement right away after incurring nearly $2 million in legal fees over the past two years.

The adjudicatory panel, which operated as a jury of his peers, found that Rangel had used House stationery and staff to solicit money for a school of public policy in his name at the City College of New York. It also concluded that he solicited donors for the center with interests before the Ways and Means Committee. Members of Congress are allowed to solicit money for nonprofit entities — even those bearing their names — as long as they do not use congressional letterhead or office resources to do so.

The ethics panel split 4-4 on a charge that Rangel violated the gift ban because the plans for the center included an office and the archiving of his personal and professional papers.

The panel also found Rangel guilty of using an apartment in Harlem zoned for residential use as his campaign office, failing to report more than $600,000 on his financial disclosure report and failing to pay taxes on rental income from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic.

Two counts charging him with improper use of the Congress’s free franked-mail privilege were combined into one.

Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, applauded the decision and called on Rangel to resign.

"All of Mr. Rangel's theatrics aside, the facts were clear: Mr. Rangel violated numerous House rules and federal laws," she said. "Whether these violations were deliberate or inadvertent, the American people deserve to be represented by members of Congress who adhere to the highest ethical standards. Mr. Rangel should resign."

Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer said the committee’s findings demonstrate the need for new ethics rules prohibiting members of Congress from soliciting money to finance institutes or centers in their name. He urged the House to promptly adopt new ethics rules barring the practice.

“There are inherent conflict-of-interest and appearance problems when members solicit money for entities named to honor the members,” he said. “Members of Congress should be prohibited from soliciting money to build monuments to themselves.” 

— This post was last updated at 2:28 p.m.