Groups want counsel for Rangel probe

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The good-government officials say they are astounded by Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) disclosure last week of at least $650,000 in assets that he previously had failed to list on his House financial disclosure forms. And they are frustrated that the House ethics committee has not issued findings on Rangel, who requested that the panel investigate him in July 2008. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in November 2008 that she expected the probe to be completed in January 2009.

The disclosure records normally are due in May, but Rangel, who chairs the powerful Ways and Means panel, filed an extension and then decided to amend previous-year reports and filed those changes in August, when news is usually slow and lawmakers are out of town.

Some in the watchdog community are tired of waiting for the ethics committee.

“Appointing a special counsel is a step the committee could and should take,” said Lisa Gilbert, democracy advocate for U.S. PIRG. “There really couldn’t be a situation where there is a more overt case for doing so than with Rangel … it’s that serious and far-ranging.”

Meredith McGehee at the Campaign Legal Center said the watchdog community should get together in the remaining days of the August recess and discuss the need for the appointment of an independent attorney to examine Rangel’s financial reporting irregularities, as well as a series of other charges, including failing to report $75,000 worth of rental income on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic. The ethics committee investigation has been expanded several times, as new charges started piling up around the chairman of the tax-writing committee.

“It’s past time for the ethics committee to have ruled on the [early allegations],” McGehee said.

Other ethics analysts acknowledge that the charges and financial missteps surrounding Rangel have reached a level of absurdity, but worry that naming a new counsel would only turn the clock back on the probe and delay an outcome that is already long overdue.

“We’re not calling for a special counsel,” said Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer. “That could involve starting all over again and greatly extend the time frame of this case.”

Several watchdogs also said Pelosi has implemented several reforms they would like to test, including the creation of the new Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), a panel made up mainly of former lawmakers to provide an additional layer of ethics scrutiny and beef up the tarnished reputation of the ethics committee.

The ethics panel, they said, does need to provide a response to some of the early Rangel charges and publicly indicate the exact stage of its probe.

“I want to see the House ethics process succeed,” said Public Citizen’s Craig Holman. “I’m sitting here with my fingers crossed. I’d hate to see the ethics committee abdicate its responsibilities, but if the ethics committee continues to drag everything on here, then at some point, it would be appropriate to name a special counsel.”

“We think it’s an outrage that [the Rangel] probe has gone on for far too long,” added Common Cause’s Mary Boyle. “It erodes public confidence and embarrasses the institution of Congress. We feel that the OCE and the ethics committee should do their jobs as fast as they can to try to resolve this issue that has been lingering ... for a year.”

The appointment of a special counsel to handle a particularly politically sensitive investigation has occurred only a handful of times in the last 20 years. Usually, the House ethics committee does not relinquish the power of policing its peers to an outside prosecutor — even during periods of intense partisanship — such as when then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) faced a variety of charges, including improperly threatening the political career of a member’s son in an attempt to influence his vote in 2003.

In two cases involving allegations against House Speakers, the ethics committee voluntarily called in an outside, independent attorney to conduct an investigation into violations of House ethics rules. The attorneys conducted their own investigation, but the ethics committee maintains the power to determine the punishment.

In 1997, special counsel James Cole conducted a probe into Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) use of tax-deductible money for political purposes. The House ethics committee subsequently issued an unprecedented reprimand and a $300,000 fine.

In 1989, a special counsel charged Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) with accepting $145,000 worth of gifts from his business partner, George Mallick, and trying to force corporations to purchase copies of his book rather than pay him speaking fees, which were subject to an annual cap at the time. They are no longer allowed. Gingrich had filed the original ethics complaints against Wright, who eventually resigned, leading to Gingrich’s ascension to Speaker.

Democratic insiders say they don’t expect the investigation to wrap up in the early fall, but Rangel’s discovery of more than $650,000 in additional assets could put more pressure on the panel to expedite the probe to address public outrage that Rangel “forgot” more than half a million dollars in assets. The New York Post late last week also discovered that Rangel is delinquent in paying his property taxes on two New Jersey parcels and failed to report the sale of a $1.3 million brownstone.

Local New York papers seized on the recent revelations to lambaste Rangel, arguing that he is operating under a different set of rules than he helps write for the public from his Ways and Means post. The New York Daily News decried his “cavalier disregard of tax and ethics regulations” and The Buffalo News called on Rangel to give up the committee gavel. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal lampooned Rangel as the “absent-minded chairman” who “personally won the lottery.”

“When normal people happen to ‘find’ their own money, it might mean a twenty left in a winter coat, or discovering change beneath the sofa cushions. But if you're Charlie Rangel, it means doubling your net worth,” the WSJ opined.

When she returns next week, Pelosi can expect a new round of editorials from the inside-the-Beltway press corps blasting Rangel’s so-called sloppiness. According to one Democratic leadership aide, however, clashes over Democrats’ plans for healthcare reform continue to dominate district news and displace everything else to the backburner.

“I don’t think our rank-and-file members in Missouri or Maryland or Florida are being asked about Charlie Rangel by local reporters,” the staffer said. “It’s not something in Democratic circles that’s concerning yet.”

Still, Rangel's influence on the healthcare bill has come into question in recent months as Republicans have seized on the varied ethics allegations. Rangel this summer bristled when Pelosi floated changes to tax provisions to the health bill, and it remains unclear how House Democrats will pay for their reform measure. Most of the offsets are expected to come from changes to entitlement programs and tax policies, which are under Rangel’s jurisdiction.

In addition to the failure to pay taxes on his beach villa, Rangel has been accused of illegally occupying four rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem, improperly using congressional letterhead to raise funds for a Rangel education center at the City College of New York and providing a legislative favor to a major donor to the center.

Rangel has denied any wrongdoing, attributing the accounting errors to sloppiness. He canceled one planned press conference last week after the media first got wind of the amended reports. In response to reporters' questions Friday, Rangel said reporters weren’t “smart enough” to ask him questions.

“I recognize that all of you have an obligation to ask questions knowing that there's none of you smart enough to frame it in such a way that I'm going to respond,” he said.