House ethics committee scolds Rangel over controversial Caribbean trips

The House ethics committee has admonished Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) for improperly accepting reimbursement for trips to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008 and has ordered him to repay the costs of the trip.

Rangel, who chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee and has served in the House for more than four decades, has been under investigation by the ethics committee for two separate matters for more than two years.

The ethics committee empaneled two subcommittees to look into allegations against Rangel. One focused on charges that he improperly used his office to raise money for an academic center at City College of New York named after him and allegations that he failed to pay taxes on rental income from villa he owns in the Dominican Republican, among other charges.

The other investigative panel looked into allegations, first reported by The Hill and the New York Post, that he and four other members of Congress and one delegate violated a rule against accepting travel from corporations that employ lobbyists by attending conferences in St. Maarten in 2008 and 2007.  

The conference was sponsored by the Carib New Foundation, a New York nonprofit affiliated with a newspaper catering to the Caribbean community in the city. The nonprofit, however, received corporate donations from Citigroup, American Airlines, Verizon, Pfizer and other businesses and failed to disclose that the money it received was specifically earmarked to pay the expenses of the Caribbean conferences.

In a hastily arranged press conference Thursday night, Rangel confirmed that the House ethics committee found that he violated House gift rules.

He said the panel found that two of his staffers – one who was later fired – knew that corporate sponsors were underwriting the trip in violation of new House rules put in place after Democrats won the majority in 2006.

Democrats imposed stricter limits on corporate-sponsored travel to prevent the type of abuse unearthed during the Jack Abramoff scandal. Lawmakers who attended Abramoff-organized golf junkets to London and Scotland, as well as other luxurious locales, listed several nonprofits as having paid for the travel even though corporations footed the bill.

The ethics committee, however, did not find any evidence that Rangel himself knew about the corporate sponsorships although the panel said he is responsible for his staffers’ actions.

Rangel said the committee’s findings served as a public admonishment of his actions and he was ordered to repay the costs of the trip.
“Common sense dictates that members of Congress shouldn’t be held responsible for what could be the wrongdoing or the error of their staff unless they think the member knew or should have known. And there is nothing in the record on that,” Rangel told reporters Thursday night.

“I have to now deal with my lawyer to figure out what the hell they mean,” he added. “…That what a staff member does but a member doesn’t know it –- the member could be charged and admonished publicly for it? I think right now I will let the general community make its own judgments based on what the ethics committee has said and I’ll get back to you with a longer statement afterwards.”

When a reporter asked if he would resign, Rangel asked where she worked. She responded that she was from CNN.

“I’m surprised,” he said. “I really am. If you were the New York Times, it would be different.”

The New York Times has written several stories critical of Rangel’s ethics in the past two years.

Rangel was seen Thursday evening approaching the chairwoman and ranking Republican on the Ethics committee -- Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) -- on the House floor, angrily addressing the two members and waving a finger in Lofrgen's face.

The confrontation lasted about 10 minutes.

The House ethics committee exonerated four other members and one delegate who also attended the Caribbean trips because it said they did not knowingly violate House rules. The members were: Democratic Reps. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.), Donald Payne (N.J.), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (Mich.) and Virgin Islands Del. Donna Christensen.

“These members properly relied on the information provided to them by the officers and employees of the Carib New and the Carib News Foundation, in seeking and receiving pre-trip approval from the Committee to accept these trips,” the ethics committee concluded.

Rangel, however, violated House gift rules, the panel found, because his staff knew that corporations had contributed funds to the Carib News specifically for the 2007 and 2008 conferences, in violation of House rules that prevented non-profits from earmarking corporate funds for member travel.

“This evidence shows that members of Representative Rangel’s staff knew that corporations had contributed funds to Carib News specifically for the 2007 and 2008 conferences this information was not provided to the Standards Committee when he sought and received approval from the Committee to accept the trips,” the ethics committee said in a three-page statement.

But the committee also said it did not find “sufficient evidence to conclude, nor does it believe that it would discover additional evidence to alter its conclusions, that Representative Rangel had actual knowledge of the memoranda written by his staff.”

The committee ordered Rangel to repay the costs of the trips to the U.S. Treasury because it could not pinpoint the exact source of the funds in question.

Republicans quickly jumped on the ethics panel’s findings as proof that Democrats are not living up to their campaign promise to run the most ethical Congress in history and “drain the swamp.”

“They need to figure out that Charlie Rangel has significant ethics problems and a panel of his peers found him guilty of violating House rules,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington quickly condemned the panel’s findings for holding Rangel responsible while exonerating the other members who also took the trip.

“The Ethics Committee’s decision makes no sense,” said CREW executive director Melanie Sloan. “There is simply no reason for Rep. Rangel alone to be held accountable for taking this trip when a number of other members were also present.”

Sloan noted that Payne publicly thanked corporate sponsors during a speech at the event, which The Hill first reported more than a year ago.

“The notion that Rep. Rangel alone was aware the trip was sponsored by corporate donors defies logic,” she said. “The fact is, each and every member of Congress present was equally as culpable as Rep. Rangel and all should be held to the same standard.”

As The Hill first reported, the conservative National Legal and Policy Center’s president, Peter Flaherty, traveled to St. Maarten during the conference in question and found evidence that corporate sponsors paid for the conference.

Photos and transcripts taken by Flaherty show evidence of corporate involvement. Several banners above and below the main podium included corporate logos of Pfizer, Citigroup, IBM, Verizon, AT&T, Macy’s and American Airlines. Flaherty also heard Kilpatrick and Payne thank business “sponsors.”

The ethics committee had initially approved the Caribbean travel but did so based on false information provided by the Carib News, the panel found.

In fact, the ethics committee discovered that officers and employees of the Carib News and the Carib News Foundation – Karl Rodney, Faye Rodney, and Patricia Louis – submitted “false and misleading information” to the committee during its pre-travel reviews of the 2007 and 2008 conferences and again when providing sworn testimony to the investigative subcommittee.

The ethics panel unanimously voted to refer the information about the officers of the Carib News and the Carib News Foundation to the Department of Justice “for further action as it deems appropriate,” the panel said in its statement.

During its investigation, the committee also found that Dawn Kelly Mobley, who had served as the counsel to former Ethics Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and was still a staffer on the committee at the beginning of the probe, was leaking confidential information to Carib News employees during the investigation.

Tubbs Jones passed away in 2008 and Lofgren was appointed to replace her as chair.

Mobley, the panel found, “improperly communicated confidential internal Committee information to officers and employees of Carib News, Karly Rodney and Patricia Louis, and that she improperly influenced the information provided by Karl Rodney and Patricia Louis to [ethics] committee staff during the Committee’s review of the 2007 Multi-National Business Conference.”

“It is the intention of this committee that publication of this report will serve as a public admonishment by the Standards Committee of Ms. Mobley,” the panel wrote in its report.

Mobley was hired to be Rep. Marcia Fudge’s (D-Ohio) chief of staff after she won Tubbs Jones' seat in 2008. It is unclear from salary records if she remains on staff. A call to the office late Thursday was not returned. 

This story was posted at 6:45 p.m. and updated at 10:45 p.m.